The Devil All the Time (2020)

The Devil All the Time is one of those eccentric thrillers that lives in its own little world.  Everything seems coated in a layer of permanent humidity and soot-stained mud.  Characters scowl and speak in hushed tones, as if we the audience are nosy trespassers to their grubby, hostile environs.  As swampy noir epics go, Devil is undeniably tense and well-acted.  It’s also relentlessly melancholic and exhausting.  For 138 minutes, the filmmakers invite us to wallow in the slop, along with a platoon of unpleasant, unredeemable characters.  Depending on your taste, this movie will either pull you into its sweaty grip or send you running for the hills.  

Based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollack, Devil plops us into the Ohio backwoods, circa 1945.  Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) returns from the war with a few emotional scars and a spiffy German Luger.  He marries a proper church girl (Haley Bennett), and they have a little boy named Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta).  Willard isn’t particularly warm as a father, but he does impart one crucial piece of wisdom:  Don’t be afraid to fight, but only at the time and ground of your own choosing.  

Tragedy strikes the Russell house, forcing Arvin to live with his uncle (David Atkinson) and grandmother (Kristin Griffith).  Arvin becomes close to Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), his new adopted sister.  As they grow into young adults, Arvin (Tom Holland) and Lenora find themselves interacting with an assortment of small-town sleaze:  Reverend Teagardin (Robert Pattison) is a histrionic young preacher who likes to hide his lechery under the warm blanket of Scripture.  Meanwhile, a crooked sheriff (Sebastian Stan) tries to navigate the criminal underworld while also keeping his job.  And there’s a couple of perverted spree killers (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) roaming the countryside.  

If that seems like a whole mess of characters and subplot, it is.  Devil sprawls for nearly two hours and twenty minutes, and most of that runtime is jam-packed with…stuff.  The filmmakers make too much time for too much of it:  Clarke and Keough’s nihilistic voyeurs almost feel ported in from another movie, and they often bring the story’s momentum to a gear-grinding halt.  That goes ditto for Harry Melling as an unhinged Evangelical tent barker, whose main purpose seems to be dialing the general ickiness up to eleven.  Some of this feels like weird for weird’s sake; a little judicious trimming could’ve distilled this film’s moonshine kick into an even higher proof.

The punch that does get packed into this hillbilly jug comes from the assemblage of high-powered actors.  As the film’s emotional center and sole relatable character, Holland shows off why he’s way more than Peter Parker.  His Arvin speaks with a clipped, quiet drawl, while his dour face looks like it could burst into tears at any minute.  Pattinson’s grab-ass pastor seems like a mix of Jim Bakker and Jerry Lee Lewis–a rock star who just happens to know the Book of Revelation by heart.  His performance is so wacky that it threatens to either run off with the film or knock it completely out of its groove.  Either way, Pattinson doesn’t lack for balls.  Finally, Stan makes a strong impression as a regular dude forever-trapped in a moral gray area.

These world-class actors help paper over Devil‘s weaknesses:  It’s too wearying, too paunchy in the middle, and just…too much.  This damn thing is so over-the-top, I’m honestly surprised nobody got killed by a flying kitchen sink.  For all the skill on display, I came away feeling a little cold.  I could appreciate all the mastery on display, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever watch this movie again.  The Devil All the Time creates its own self-contained strangeness, a fact that turns out to be the best and worst thing about it.  

138 min.  R.  (Netflix)

Author: Todd Wofford

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