Is the world full of “no-good sons of bitches”? Willard Russell seems to think so, and judging by the characters in the film, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME, he may just be right.
The time is post-war America and Willard (Bill Skarsgård, the IT duology; DEADPOOL 2; ATOMIC BLONDE) has returned from seeing brutal action in the Solomon Islands to his quiet town in America’s heartland to make a life for himself. Unfortunately, for Willard and for those around him, happiness is short-lived as the sinners who populate Knockemstiff, Ohio (that’s a real place) appear to have the upper hand. Eight years after Willard and his wife Charlotte (Haley Bennett, SWALLOW) die in tragic circumstances, their son Arvin (Tom Holland, the SPIDER-MAN films; the AVENGERS franchise; DOLITTLE; SPIES IN DISGUISE; THE CURRENT WAR) tries to rebuild his life with the help of his loving grandmother Emma, great-uncle Earskill and adopted step-sister Lenora Laferty (Eliza Scanlen, LITTLE WOMEN), who has her own family tragedy to process. But evil is all around Arvin, from the town’s false preacher, Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson, TENET; GOOD TIME; the TWILIGHT films), to its corrupt sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan, the AVENGERS franchise; I, TONYA; LOGAN LUCKY), to Bodecker’s murderous sister, Sandy (Riley Keough, LOGAN LUCKY), and her husband, Carl (Jason Clarke, PET SEMATARY; FIRST MAN; TERMINATOR GENISYS). As all their stories intertwine, Arvin finds that he can’t escape from the events and lessons that shaped his early life.
Directed by Antonio Campos (TV’s THE SINNER) and co-written along with his brother Paulo, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME is based on the 2011 award-winning debut novel by Donald Ray Pollack, who also serves at the story’s narrator here. Admittedly, I haven’t read the book but I’m curious to see how Pollack was able to pack so much story into 272 pages. This is the big problem with the movie. With the three storylines (Arvin’s, Lenora’s and the Bodeckers’) all weaving in and out of each other, there’s a lot going on but somehow Campos doesn’t give audiences much to latch onto. After 138 minutes, we don’t understand any better why sinners do what they do. While there ultimately is some retribution, or let’s call it karma, to be had, if all Campos is saying is that evil exists and there’s little the faithful can do about it, it doesn’t make for a very fulfilling story. The Coen brothers can find humour and insight in life’s darkest moments but neither of those is to be found here. Maybe this film should have been made as a three-part TV miniseries where Campos could have included more character depth. There is a whole backstory to the reverend that I understand is in the book but not in the movie.
To the director’s credit though, he gets great performances out his cast, most of whom are not even American let alone from Appalachia. (Holland, Pattinson and Henry Melling, who plays Lenora’s father, are British; Skarsgård is Swedish; and Clarke, Scanlen and Mia Wasikowska, who plays Lenora’s mother, are Australian.) It’s refreshing to see Holland playing something other than a spunky teenager ziplining around against a green screen backdrop. Guess what? He can actually act! And Pattinson shows us once again that he’s a lot more than just a former teenage heartthrob.
THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME is available now on Netflix. Although it’s a flawed film and it can definitely test your patience at times, it’s still worth watching for the performances alone.
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