The Devil All The Time (2020)
Directed by: Antonio Campos
Written by: Antonio Campos, Paulo Campos
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgard, Haley Bennett, Riley Keough
There’s a strange kind of balance in The Devil All the Time.
On the one hand, you have a handful of very talented actors like Robert Pattinson, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough, and Bill Skargard giving very convincing, thoughtful portrayals to the characters they play. On the other, the characters they portray are such unlikeable, irredeemable scum that it’s almost impossible to imagine them gaining wider recognition for it. As someone who enjoyed the novel it was based on, the film adaptation of The Devil All the Time terrifically captures the same sense of hopelessness and misery that the novel has. Besides the aforementioned performances, the cinematography and music both do a commendable job of capturing the beauty and desolation found in the setting of Knockemstiff, Ohio.
That said, they are all performed in service of a story so miserable that it was difficult for me to imagine anyone enjoying it. Unless, of course, you’re the sort of person like myself who enjoys indulging in a good wallow of misery. Because while misery is the most important ingredient for The Devil All the Time, it’s far from the only one. Humor is another important ingredient in its story. Granted, humor like the film’s narrator openly calling one character a “sick fuck” is the kind of thing that would make a hangman chuckle, but it underlines another aspect that makes The Devil All the Time so compulsively watchable. That is, that the macabre can be both gruesome and absurd.
This marriage of gruesomeness and absurdity is something that’s also found in the film’s protagonist, Arvin Russell (Michael Banks Repeta) and his relationship with his father Willard (Skarsgard). There’s a moment where Willard takes young Arvin with him to watch him beat the ever loving snot out of a pair of redneck hunters who made crude remarks about his wife in front of the two of them. While Willard doesn’t kill either man, it’s a brutal scene all the same, as he leaves both men bleeding and begging for their lives. When Willard returns to his son, he tells Arvin that one of the keys to living life is waiting for the right moment to strike back at those who have wronged you. Afterward, he offers to buy Arvin a candy. The narrator describes this day as “the happiest memory Arvin ever had of his father.”
The film only becomes darker as it follows Arvin’s progression into young adulthood (played here by Tom Holland), where he finds himself embroiled in a rivalry with Knockemstiff’s charismatic but sinister new preacher, Preston Teagardin (Pattinson) and the spell he casts on his adoptive sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen). Holland is the standout here, playing Arvin with a mixture of both cynicism and wide-eyed romanticism. While life has heaped its fair share of miseries on him, there’s still a part of him that clings on to the promise of a new day. A day that can bring a better life for him and Lenora.
However, if there’s one problem with the film, it’s in the narration of Donald Ray Pollock. His voice is beautiful to listen to, but all too often it’s utilized to explain aspects of the story that were already obvious. While it’s not too distracting at first, and occasionally can prove to have some witty insights to the film’s characters, it soon serves to distract from the action on screen. In moments of contemplation, it serves to rob the audience of the beauty of mystery and instead plainly explains what’s happening instead.
This being said, The Devil All the Time is a film worth watching. It unflinchingly showcases moments of cruelty and brutal violence, but it also is able to find the beauty that occurs in between such moments. And finding that balance between cruelty and beauty is what makes it a film worth your time.