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Film Review: “The Devil All the Time” Sends Us Straight to Narrative Hell

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 15th, 2020

Film poster: “The Devil All the Time”

The Devil All the Time (Antonio Campos, 2020) 1 out of 4 stars.

Based on the eponymous 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock, and narrated by the same, the new movie The Devil All the Time comes with a cast of impressive talent, including actors like Haley Bennett (Swallow), Jason Clarke (Pet Sematary), Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Far From Home), Riley Keough (The Lodge), Harry Melling (The Old Guard), Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse), Bill Skarsgård (Villains), Sebastian Stan (Endings, Beginnings) and Mia Wasikowska (Judy & Punch), not all of whom stay on screen for very long, but whose names nevertheless add luster to the credit list. Would that were enough to guarantee dramatic success. Sadly, the turgid mess of a Southern Gothic tale (though set in Ohio and West Virginia) that remains is not only overlong but overwrought, undercutting its few moments of genuine emotion with excess of all kinds, the author’s detached voiceover notwithstanding. The devil is indeed at work, but not in a good way.

We start in 1957, then jump back to 1945, then to somewhere in between, following our ensemble across time and across the two states that make up the geographic area of the narrative. The characters include a World War II veteran, a pair of serial killers, two sleazy preachers, a young boy who grows into a young man, and a number of hapless women (indeed, the story arc is extremely unkind to its female passengers). There is sex, there is murder, there is sickness, there is endemic poverty, perverted religion and more. Though I understand the writer hails from this very region of the United States, I find it hard to believe that its modern-day residents would not be insulted by the caricatures on display. The protagonists are a mix of various combinations of stupid, naïve, violent, greedy, oversexed and unlucky, or all of the above. With Holland the only actor turning in a watchable performance (beyond the women, who aren’t developed enough to do anything that could tarnish them), there really isn’t much reason to watch this, unless you like your stereotypes deep fried.

Tom Holland as Arvin Russell in THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME. Photo Cr. Glen Wilson ©Netflix

Director Campos (Simon Killer) photographs the affair in appropriately muddy tones, given the morass on display, but this consistency of tone and subject hardly matters. The underlying moral horror of the plot may bear exploring, but exposition does not a meaningful cinematic excavation make. This is no agonizing, but cathartic, treatment à la William Faulkner, sadly. It’s just misery, jacked up on prestige.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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