by Ken Bakely
It’s clear that Antonio Campos’s The Devil All the Time wants to say a lot – about cycles of violence, about toxic histories that creep under small communities, about trauma through generations, about the disaster which invariably comes when religion is used as a tool of authority. But it fails categorically to discuss any of these issues at all. For a movie that so desperately wants to consider the nature of suffering, it merely suffers instead, languidly navigating its nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime with largely indistinguishable characters committing acts of brutal violence against each other in largely indistinguishable settings. It’s very hard to remember who has just been shot in the chest or stabbed in the throat with a screwdriver, because the movie doesn’t think much about them, aside from using them as the next pawn to be felled. Set across a stretch of rural Appalachia in the 1950s and ‘60s, the film primarily centers around Arvin Russell (Tom Holland), a haunted young man whose family history is marked by a long series of horrors, and whose path crosses with a number of dangerous characters, including a violent traveling preacher (Robert Pattinson); another violent traveling preacher (Harry Melling); and a serial killer duo (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough), who target young male hitchhikers.
And though the cast is roundly admirable as they try to steer the film through its thick layers of misery, even a capable ensemble can do nothing to right the innate wrongs that come from the movie’s execution. The Devil All the Time is a disastrous combination of dour, overstuffed, and dry. It lands with a thud, with its long runtime still failing to indicate much about what’s happening, who these characters are, and what the point is in putting them all together and setting them off on each other. The film is based on Donald Ray Pollock’s 2011 novel of the same name, and Pollock himself serves as narrator, with his sonorous voiceover adding exposition and some introspection. But the script’s choice to add lengthy blocks of narration arguably bogs things down further, leaving the movie feeling split into segments, instead of forming a cohesive narrative. There’s no rhythm to the movie and no real energy. It throws ideas around without expounding upon them. To simply depict is not the same as to reflect upon, and this movie, with all that happens within, can’t focus on anything enough to really get a hold on itself. It’s highly unpleasant in the most shallow of ways, presenting a parade of gloomy chaos in the hope that it will be enough.
What does the movie actually tell us? What does it seek to discern about human society? It wants to plumb these depths in a quest to find something, but it keeps coming up empty; or rather, it doesn’t stop and observe long enough to make any inroads. The Devil All the Time is meticulously assembled on an aesthetic level, with grimy sets and costumes cast against Lol Crawley’s creamy cinematography, but the film’s problems all trace back to its very structure and thesis. It’s an impeccably made film that’s virtually impossible to glean any real takeaways from. It comes close on occasion, perhaps through the work of some fine performances from the cast, but still remains frustratingly distant and discombobulated for the rest of the runtime. The material remains conspicuously at arm’s length, as Campos wildly careens the story from one scene to another. There’s never any real sense of engagement or reconciliation, only more events haphazardly stacked atop each other, as if some critical mass could be reached that would let it all resolve. Without resolution or realization, it’s just the same vague points about human cruelty and the ills of the societies in which the story is set, leaving the viewer simply disengaged.