REVIEW – ‘The Devil All the Time’ is a Southern Gothic horror noir that could be the year’s bleakest film

While your brain still recovers from the exhausting and unsolvable puzzle of Tenet, Netflix steps up to the plate to deliver a chaotic, complicated Southern Gothic horror noir with so many intertwining story threads, you might initially need a corkboard and some string to understand how it all weaves together. Thankfully, unlike Christopher Nolan’s nonsensical failure, The Devil All the Time becomes clearer as it travels through a grim narrative dripping with blood and shrouded by a sense of unrelenting dread right from its opening scene.

With a bleak tone that only becomes darker as the film barrels along and a twist-filled storyline with numerous shocks throughout, The Devil All the Time is a difficult endurance test some may struggle to complete. It’s purposely dark and unsettling without any semblance of light, but it’s a film worth the misery for the spectacular performances from its impressive ensemble cast.

Based on the acclaimed 2011 novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock (whose slow Southern drawl serves as the film’s narrator), The Devil All the Time is a father-son story told through two non-linear timelines in the dreary town of Knockemstiff, Ohio. Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgard) is a returning World War II veteran haunted by his experiences in the South Pacific. After turning his back on God during his deployment, Willard finds his faith again when he falls for local waitress Charlotte (Haley Bennett).

The pair’s marriage leads to the arrival of their son, Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta), who is taught religion by way of a makeshift altar Willard builds behind the family cabin. Despite Willard and Arvin’s impassioned praying, they can’t halt the occurrence of a family tragedy, leading to Arvin being sent to live with his doting grandmother, Emma (Kristin Griffith), who is already taking care of an abandoned baby girl.

Jumping forward several years, we find an older Arvin (an impressive Tom Holland) in protective mode of his step-sister, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), who is the target of ruthlessly bullied at school for being a devote Christian. Filled with rage after his tragic upbringing, Arvin is quick to dish out violent retribution for those who target his beloved sister. Lenora’s religious devotion and naiveté make her a sitting target for the town’s slick new preacher Preston Teagardin (an unhinged Robert Pattinson), who has a predatory eye for innocent young women.

Amongst this already-complicated plot are several other narrative strands involving Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy (Riley Keough), a sadistic pair of travelling serial killers who torture doomed male hitchhikers; openly corrupt Sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan), who also happens to be Sandy’s brother; and the beleaguered Helen (Mia Wasikowska) and her wildly evangelical preacher husband, Roy (Harry Melling), whose misguided faith in his religion brings deadly consequences. Don’t worry. It will all make sense…eventually.

It’s a testament to both Pollock’s original novel and the adapted screenplay by director Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos that The Devil All the Time is able to effectively twist multiple storylines and characters in a style that would make Paul Thomas Anderson proud. It’s all rather jarringly confusing initially, especially with the breakneck speed Campos begins his film and how he continually shifts between timelines with little warning. Once the film finds its groove, everything begins to make sense and it’s clear there are reasons for Campos’ unconventional structure.

If it isn’t already abundantly clear, the major theme of The Devil All the Time centres on religion and the varying impact of faith in the lives of these tragic characters. The way it provides hope. The way it corrupts. The way it can mislead. And, most importantly, the way it can mask the true devil within the darkest of souls, particularly those who proclaim themselves as pure men of God. It’s a fairly scathing indictment of religion, which is sure to rub many the wrong way, but it would be unfair to call this film entirely sacrilegious. There’s brutal punishment for those who selfishly utilise the corruptive power of faith, which can perhaps be read as proof that good ultimately triumphs over evil.

It’s a provocative introspection of religion that doesn’t quite take enough time to truly explore its thematic intentions. With an expansive list of characters and storylines to cover, The Devil All the Time feels like an adaptation that would have been served better through a multi-episode miniseries than a feature film. Even at close to two-and-a-half hours, the film is far too rushed and barely stops to take a breath to allow moments to truly permeate in an audience’s mind. Nor does it ever truly explore why these characters are the way they are, especially those performing the most sinister of acts.

This is only confounded by Pollock’s wry narration, which initially helps understand all the complex pieces of Campos’ puzzle, but quickly becomes rather overbearing and often entirely pointless, particularly in moments where Pollock blatantly describes what’s occurring right in front of us. It’s charming to involve the original creator of this story, but there’s something to be said for allowing visuals to exist on their own. Sadly, it’s a notion this film consistently fails to grasp.

One of the year’s finest ensemble casts ultimately saves this film from its structural foibles. It’s rather bemusing for a film set in 1960s rural America, the majority of the main cast is composed of British and Australian expats, which could have been a recipe for disaster in the accent department. Thankfully, that’s not the case. There’s not a weak link to be found in the chain, but the main kudos has to be given to Holland and Pattinson, who both deliver cracking performances as two wildly different characters.

In a major departure from his Peter Parker routine, Holland takes on his darkest role to date and offers an understated turn as a young man formed by childhood trauma. It’s far from a showy role, but Holland doesn’t need elaborate displays to showcase the inner turmoil of such a fractured mind. When Arvin finally takes control of the narrative in the second act, Holland deftly takes control of this film and highlights his talents beyond the Spider-Man suit.

Meanwhile, Pattinson offers another outlandishly eccentric performance that mirrors his delicious turn in 2019’s The King. As the preacher with a flair for the theatrics and a bizarre cadence when in full sermon mode, Pattinson’s accent and pitch choices are both utterly insane, but it perfectly complements this devilish character whose true nature is genuinely terrifying. It’s a menacing and predatory performance that constantly flirts with farse, but Pattinson is in such command of this character and everything he delivers feels unsettlingly authentic.

A blood-soaked nightmare that could very well be the year’s bleakest film, The Devil All the Time is hardly an easy watch. With so much misery already clouding everything in 2020, perhaps it’s not the film we need right now. Or maybe it perfectly fits the tone of this disaster of a year. While it’s a flawed work, Campos has delivered a film that’s consistently engaging and will keep you on your toes until its brutal final act that finally offers a ray of hope at the end of a very dark tunnel. If you can manage to progress through such a tunnel of misery, the reward is worth the torment.

Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgard, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Robert Pattinson, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, Sebastian Stan, Michael Banks Repeta, Kristin Griffith, Haley Bennett, Harry Melling, Pokey LaFarge
Director: Antonio Campos
Producers: Randall Poster, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker, Max Born
Screenplay: Antonio Campos, Paulo Campos
Cinematography: Lol Crawley
Production Design: Craig Lathrop
Costume Design: Emma Potter
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans

Editing: Sofia Subercaseaux
Running Time: 138 minutes
Release Date: 16th September 2020 (Australia)