In Knockemstiff, Ohio and its neighboring backwoods, sinister characters converge around young Arvin Russell as he fights the evil forces that threaten him and his family.
Netflix has been able to deliver films with all-star casts pretty regularly. Whether people like the movie or not, that’s a whole other subject, but as a convincing argument to make people want to watch a film, this type of casting is perfect. Almost every actor in The Devil All The Time is a fan-favorite due to their presence in cinematic universes, iconic sagas, or Oscar-winning flicks, so it’s no surprise if this aspect alone gets audiences to sit in their couches for a movie with an almost two-hour-and-a-half runtime. This is my first time watching an Antonio Campos’ film, and my expectations were moderately high, having in mind the synopsis and the genre itself.
I didn’t know what the movie was really about since the synopsis doesn’t really shine a light on what the main narrative truly addresses. I only watch the first official trailer *after* I watch the film (so I know what I can write in my reviews), and to be honest, it’s a bit misleading when it comes to the time certain actors are actually on-screen (Holland only shows up after forty-five minutes, for example). So, for the first hour-and-a-half, I found myself struggling to understand where the story was going. There are more than a handful of relevant characters and storylines, being this my main issue with the flick, but I’ll get there.
I’ll start with the cast and their characters. The former group is impeccable, as expected. Tom Holland is undoubtedly the biggest surprise by delivering a part of him that no one had seen so far. Arvin’s personality is shaped based on his traumatic, tragic, violent childhood. Transitioning from the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to such a haunted character is not an easy task, but Holland finds a way of dealing with the emotionally overwhelming, dark path that Arvin walks. However, this is a long movie where every character has an important role to play, even those who barely impact the story until the last few minutes.
Bill Skarsgård plays Holland’s father, seamlessly incorporating a man whose blind faith in religion sets not only a horrible chain of events, but it also establishes the overall theme for the film. Riley Keough and Jason Clarke play a weird couple with a disturbing modus operandi, but the former is genuinely impressive. She’s becoming quite an interesting actress by picking unique roles in unconventional movies. Everyone else is great, Robert Pattinson, Eliza Scanlen, Sebastian Stan, you name it, but Holland, Skarsgård, and Keough are my absolute standouts, as well as their characters. They’re definitely most developed across the runtime than the others, which takes me to one of my negatives.
With so many characters, the balance between the numerous storylines fails to be consistent enough to keep me engaged throughout the entire runtime. Antonio and Paulo Campos offer every character a good chunk of time, giving the viewer opportunity to understand the motivations behind said characters and connect with their story. Excellent storytelling method, no doubt about it. However, by the end of the film, some characters have close to zero impact on the narrative in retrospect. Contrasting with my standouts, a few characters feel one-dimensional, used merely either as a plot device to make the story go forward or as an object for gratuitous, gory, bloody killing.
That last aspect might be a no-go for tons of viewers. There are dozens of sequences where a character is brutally shot or beat close to death, so you have my warning. It can go from entertaining to excessively gruesome in a matter of seconds. Nevertheless, the thing I love the most about The Devil All The Time will be the exact same many viewers will definitely hate: its take on religion. Similarly to Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, this is a movie that doesn’t shy away from depicting how blind faith in hardcore religiousness can be dark, somber, sinful, and take people through the most terrible of paths. It’s the overall theme that connects every storyline.
Throughout the film, almost every character’s decision is made based on their religious beliefs in some shape or form. If they believe praying is the solution to cancer, they’ll pray for days in a row and make sacrifices. If they believe God is giving them supernatural powers, they’ll do everything to test his will. If they believe God is telling them to make the most illogical decisions, perform inhuman actions, and sin in the most awful way possible, they’ll do it in the blink of an eye. This religious manipulation is depicted in such a realistic manner that it transforms The Devil All The Time into a pretty tricky viewing. For me, it felt so authentic that I can easily connect it to the state of the real world.
From the moment I realized this underlying theme, the second half of the movie became much more interesting. Character arcs start to intertwine, previous questions being to receive their respective answers, and everything falls into place in the last thirty to forty-five minutes. However, the runtime still feels way too long, and even though Antonio and Paulo Campos do a remarkable job by coherently joining the several storylines, some of these simply don’t add anything to the narrative or to the protagonist’s arc. Technically impressive across the board, standouts being Lol Crawley’s lingering cinematography and the sweet score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.
The Devil All The Time is destined to be incredibly divisive. Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos conjured up a somber, dark, extremely violent screenplay, packed with numerous storylines and an underlying theme that’s going to cause some controversy. With such a stellar cast, it’s impossible not to have outstanding performances. The entire cast is impeccable, but Tom Holland (the absolute standout), Riley Keough, and Bill Skarsgård deserve the shoutout due to their genuinely impressive displays. However, the high number of characters and their respective arcs unnecessarily overextend the runtime. Too much time is given to characters who, in retrospect, barely have an impact in the narrative or in the protagonist. Some are used as mere plot devices or kill targets for the sake of entertainment. Nevertheless, the narrative’s focus on religion is bold and audacious, showing how blind faith can negatively influence people’s lives, taking them and others through the most painful paths. Depending on each person’s view on religion, on how open the mind can be and the sensibility to bloody violence, I leave my warning that this film might not be for everyone. But, if it is for you, it will be hard to forget.
Nine Stories Productions, BorderLine Films, Bronx Moving Co. by Antonio Campos, Paulo Campos, Donald Ray Pollock.
Stars: Donald Ray Pollock, Bill Skarsgård, Tom Holland, Michael Banks Repeta.
Genres: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Keywords: suicide sheriff based on novel or book small town gun murder serial killer photograph church violence gothic madness post world war ii reverend
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