The Devil All The Time
Antonio Campos and Netflix’s adaptation of The Devil All The Time brings together a stellar cast with performances you won’t forget, even if the story leaves a little to be desired. Learn more in our full review!
Maybe I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but last month (when the trailer dropped) was the first time this film came up on my radar. The taut trailer hit all the right notes and The Devil All the Time almost instantly jumped onto my list of must-see films this Fall. Netflix gave me the chance to check out the film ahead of its launch and I fired it up as soon as I could.
The story takes place in the years spanning the end of World War II and the start of the Vietnam War. In it, we follow a handful of characters, all of whom lead drastically different lives and have almost nothing in common, but find themselves pulled together in the most sinister of ways.
Set in the rural area of Knockemstiff, Ohio, the focus of the story is on Arvin (Tom Holland). We follow him from his younger days, learning hard lessons from his father (who copes with deeds done in WWII) into manhood determined to do the right thing at any costs.
One part a story of corruption in a small county, from a crooked Sheriff (Sebastian Stan) and a serial killer couple, and one part story of revenge, The Devil All The Time has a whole lot going on in it. Over the top of it all, as we jump around between different characters (and time) there’s a narrator filling in some of the gaps, while also providing insight into specific character motivations.
I don’t want to delve into spoilers so I’m going to have to leave it vague because there’s a lot going on within the story. Even while there’s a lot going on--with a handful of stories that feel as though they’re telling a different story--the film does an excellent job of keeping the viewer centered in the middle of it. It jumps around quite a bit, but I never once felt lost in the changing times and character shifts.
Let me get this out of the way real quick...The Devil All the Time wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. Don’t get me wrong, it is a VERY good film with some impressive aspects (which I’m about to discuss), but fell short in certain ways. Namely in terms of the story itself.
I loved the overall story being told. It paints a bleak picture of how even small-town corruption can have a big impact on multiple lives. The problem, however, is I didn’t feel I had enough time with any of the characters/branching plots to make them feel more meaningful. The film does a great job of balancing the amount of characters it has, but in some ways, that’s also the problem. It’s TOO well balanced, leaving me wanting more from every side but unable to get it.
When you throw in the omniscient narrator, who fills in the character motivations we don’t see, it felt like I was a passive observer rather than immersed in the story. There was a general sense of detachment to certain events, robbing key moments in the final act of the emotional impact I wanted to feel. It’s made all the stranger as these emotional moments are presented effectively early in the movie, but absent as it goes on.
The more I think about it, the more it feels like this story would have been better told as a limited series. The cast of characters and noir style would be better served by giving them more time to develop their own motivations, and that emotional connection, instead of merely being told about them.
Powerful Performances and Themes
Easily the most compelling aspect of The Devil All The Time are the performances. The cast is stacked with a who’s who of impressive talent and they all bring their ‘A’ game. Seriously, there’s no bad performance, and each character feels lived-in and realistic in the best ways possible.
Bill Skarsgård’s portrayal of Willard (Arvin’s father) provides some of the strongest emotional beats in the film (coming early on) and helps set the tone for everything to come. Without hyperbole, Tom Holland is giving off an award-winning performance in the film. Serving as an anchor for the diverging plot-lines, he absolutely delivers and manages to stand out among a bevy of heavy-hitters.
Pick just about any individual scene in the film, and you’ll find something incredible. Between the acting and how scenes were shot/edited, The Devil All The Time offers some of the best sequences I’ve seen this year (another reason it feels like such a bummer that the overall story couldn’t pull them together cohesively). One scene in particular stands out, however, and is a pivotal moment between Holland’s Arvin and Robert Pattinson’s Reverend Teagardin.
The corrupt minister wields faith like a weapon, turning it to his own ends and caring little for who it affects beyond his own desires. Pattison plays it masterfully, jumping back and forth between righteous leader and creepy deviant. The duality of Teagardin’s personality is on full display in the “showdown” scene with Arvin. The play of emotions across his tone and face convey the realization of what’s taking place, even as Arvin lays bare a litany of sins. It’s just a powerful sequence and probably the biggest reason I’ll find to come back to this film again down the road.
The other aspect of the film that will stick with me, beyond the performances, are the themes presented. The Devil All The Time takes a hard look at two things people often associate as interchangeable: faith/religion and morality. The film has a lot to say how people use the cover of faith to commit atrocities, while grappling with the idea of doing bad things in the name of justice. There’s an inverse of the ideas we’ve come to associate with these terms as we see characters with roles in society we look up to, but using them for terrible purposes. Even as we see some of them do the “right” thing, you’ll always question whether or not it’s because of a desire to be better, or simply to further their own ends.
These themes and the performances are what hooked me on the film and kept me watching even as the threads of the story began to fall apart. It’s something that has kept my mind turning over elements of this film long after the credits have rolled. Even though the film ultimately falls short of its potential, I can’t say I regret watching it and suspect I’ll come back to it periodically. It’s remarkable in what it gets right and I think many will find plenty to enjoy with it.