Generations of families in heartland America face an endless cycle of violence between World War Two and the Vietnam War. Youngster Arvin Russell (Michael Banks Repeta) ages before his time in the face of harrowing childhood events, leaving him a rage-fuelled adolescent (Tom Holland) with a moral compass. After a new preacher (Robert Pattinson) arrives in town, Arvin must embrace the violence that has defined his life to right wrongs and fight the misery and evil engulfing his backwoods town and the people inhabiting it.
‘Southern Gothic’ is a niche genre that presents the literal and moral decay of, you guessed it, small-town life in the old American South. These stories, defined by weighty musing, are often set during various times of social transformation in the 20th century, such as the Great Depression or the Vietnam War. The first series of HBO’s hit True Detective typified Southern Gothic; Matthew McConaughey’s drawling narration on morality, paired with shots of overgrown forests, crumbling towns, and people weathered by time, couldn’t better suit the genre. As you can maybe guess, Southern Gothic isn’t known as light viewing; to that end, The Devil all the Time is an admirable effort to recreate a sprawling, dark narrative set over several generations onscreen.
The film is based on a novel by Donald Ray Pollock, who also narrates director Antonio Campos’ adaptation. The book was a hit, with Pollock praised for his ability to interweave the stories of so many characters. His writing was even compared to famed Americana authors William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, with these writers also having many of their novels adapted to film. The Devil… evidently has a lot to live up to, coming from a large catalogue of Southern Gothic adaptations. And while the film is very watchable, it does fail where Pollock’s books succeeds, falling prey to a sprawling narrative that takes too much away from the core action.
Campos’ script, co-written with his brother Paulo, is a rambling, intertwining beast. The Devil… tracks a dozen characters across two towns over a period of 20+ years. This is no doubt tricky to condense into a single film, and it’s one that the Campos struggle with. A pair of serial killers, on the lookout for new victims throughout the film, are a notable distraction from the main plot revolving around the Russell family. This ultimately slows what could have been a very tight narrative. Similarly, the story of a corrupt sheriff (who plays a significant role at the film’s climax) offers little we haven’t seen before. This unoriginality, coupled with a poorly developed character arc, means it’s tough to be interested in his story, reducing his character’s impact when it’s needed most.
Campos’ directorial credits include TV series The Punisher and The Sinner – clear project typecasting. The Devil…, while unrelentingly dark, is also beautifully shot. Campos presents many of Southern Gothic symbols at work – lingering shots of empty highways and lone chapels – to great effect, clearly defining where we are and setting the mode. The camera work is otherwise unintrusive, leaving his script to tell the story.
The Devil… boasts an impressive ensemble cast featuring some of Hollywood’s young heavyweights. Unfortunately, most of the actors play their role too straight, meaning the film is afflicted by a one-track tone. Tom Holland is good in the lead as Arvin Russell, his boyish looks a counter to his character’s brooding dark streak. Bill Skarsgård is formidable as Arvin’s PTSD-suffering father Willard, and Eliza Scanlen offers a dose of vulnerability as Lenora. Robert Pattinson is the closest to stepping away from the singularly serious, camping up his slimey preacher Preston Teagardin to the point that he feels near unbelievable without crossing the line. Elsewhere, however, stiff performances from other big names often weighs the film down in undynamic, unvarying action.
The Devil… ultimately sags under the weight of its darkness, the sprawling plot weighed down with a one-track tone. 6.5/10.