Antonio Campos' 2020 adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock's 2011 novel of the same name is an extremely ambitious film that contains more plot strands than it has time to thread together. While the treatment of its grandiose themes only works (ahem) some of the time, it's an engaging, enthralling watch all of the time (/applause), even if some will find a few moments unbearably difficult to stomach. This is an oppressive, punishingly dark film.
There are so many characters and timelines at play here that to list them would read like a biblical genealogy, so I'll provide a purely superficial synopsis. The story ultimately centres on Arvin Russell, a young man whom we track through various stages of childhood and adolescence, until he is eventually played by an excellent Tom Holland as a young man. His father, Willard (Bill Skarsgård), who suffers PTSD from WWII, is the kind of father that believes violence is usually the answer, to the extent that he actively teaches his son to think the same. He has a complicated relationship with religion, no doubt stemming from a gruesome encounter on the battlefield that we briefly (and regrettably) relive with him. These two conflicting character traits plague Arvin as he wrestles with them throughout his young life, while being constantly buffeted by familial sickness and death, corrupt police, evil preachers (including a noteworthy Robert Pattinson in his most reprehensible role since Edward Cullen, in a good way) and a murderous photographer. Each of the peripheral devils unknowingly circle Arvin like sharks until he is forced to try to put an end to the cycle of death (and there is SO much death).
Faith and religion are central themes. You could describe The Devil All the Time as a sprawling, spiraling chronicle of soulless characters, each with varying degrees of delusion about what God is telling them to do. Some genuinely believe they hear the voice of God and act on it, usually with fatal consequences. Some clearly cover their blatantly homicidal thoughts with a thin veneer of divine instruction. The point is, either way, death is usually the result. It raises some interesting questions of accountability and morality by presenting us with undeniably murky waters - does the ending of one life justify the ending of another? Sometimes, the film tries to offer an answer by way of our protagonist, but when he is far from blameless himself, we're left with the same result: the same question, posed in a different way, but answered again with death. Many characters ask questions of God, but none wait to hear the answer.
It should come as no surprise to hear that another guiding principle of the narrative is death and violence itself. The film's dark underbelly feels tonally reminiscent of the Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men, where each instance of violence is brief so as not to be gratuitous (bar one moment that men in particular will find difficult not to look away from), but often so visceral that it sticks with you as if the camera had lingered on it for minutes. It's by no means a gore fest, but its impact will be too much for some. The hand-on-mouth tally was high with this one. Death is haunting every frame, waiting around every corner, sometimes without warning, and is not interested in your favourite characters. A bit like, well, death.
If you are waiting for the part of the review that talks about the hopeful moment of redemption that eventually breaks the drought of optimism and human decency, you understand what it's like to watch this film. It is exceptionally well acted and stunningly directed, even if it doesn't always keep all the narrative plates spinning. The score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (of Ozark fame) is masterclass-level brilliant in terms of both atmosphere and being foreboding without foretelling. Unfortunately, I found the narration unnecessarily obtrusive in some key moments and the central-American drawl quite hard to decipher sometimes, but I refuse to watch an English-language film with English subtitles, so there.
Do not read all of the above insistence of the film's grittiness as a criticism. Art doesn't promise us freedom from feeling uncomfortable or challenged (nor should it), but it does promise us freedom from its reality, to give us distance, a chance to breathe and pause to consider its message. A highlight of The Devil All the Time is the way in which it flicks backwards and forwards through time, sometimes re-watching itself as we might re-read chapters of a book to gain further insight. This, coupled with a promising opening act, hint at a slightly more cohesive film buried beneath the surface, but what is promised isn't always delivered. A bit like, well, life.
The Devil All the Time is streaming on Netflix now.