An exhibit A of what happens if you don’t adapt a book enough, Antonio Campos’ The Devil All the Time pays all due reverence to Donald Ray Pollock’s acclaimed novel without quite finding a way to inspire that same reverence when watching it. Pollock’s writing has a wry and vivid efficacy, mining yesteryear’s sordid tales of people in rural Midwestern towns while fate plays a cruel joker and “sins of the father” is very much a thing. Toxic masculinity abounds right at its roots, with seepage from American poverty and wars festering in the groundwater. The Devil All the Time spans a variety of lives in and about the backwoods villages of Knockemstiff, Ohio and Coal Creek, West Virginia during the years between WWII and Vietnam. The two things that twine those lives together seem to be, for the most part, proximity and wrong-doing.
Detailing the story would be an exhaustive exercise, but here’s a small sample: Willard Russell (a very good Bill Skarsgård) comes home from the horrors of war in the Pacific to live with his mother and uncle. He meets a waitress (a very good Haley Bennett) and they get married and have a son, named Arvin (a very good Michael Banks Repeta and then, later, a very good Tom Holland). But Willard’s mother Emma (a very good Kristin Griffith) promised God that Willard would marry Helen Hatton (a very good Mia Wasikowska), who instead is drawn to charismatic preacher Roy (a very, uh, something Harry Melling), who likes to dump spiders on his head as a display of zeal. Those two have a daughter, Lenora (a very good Eliza Scanlen), who ends up living with Emma and Uncle Earskell (David Atkinson) after some bad things happen to her parents, which is also why Arvin ends up living with them. (Be warned: This story is just basically bad things happening to people, non-stop). There’s also a corrupt deputy/sheriff (Sebastian Stan), a serial killer couple (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) and a skeezy preacher (Robert Pattinson). It’s a hell of a lot of very good acting and a whole heaping mess of jumbled narrative threads.
Plot was so far besides the point in the book that watching a movie try to maintain most of the book’s content while still trying for dramatic beats is a bit like watching someone paint with watercolors on a rock. Campos and editor Sofia Subercaseaux hop around in time and from character to character in such a way that you can’t help but feel your emotional investment stretched thin—though this doesn’t seem so much a problem with the execution of the script but with the script itself. Either The Devil All the Time needed to be a six-hour miniseries, or Campos and his brother/co-writer Paulo needed to rein in all the tangents, finding a way to devote the film to Arvin’s story and the elements most adjacent to him.
The way Pollock writes would likely inspire a sort of high-pulp, Tarantino-esque aesthetic in most directors, but Campos shows an admirable if perhaps muddling restraint. With a modest drawl, Pollock himself narrates the film, an inelegant attempt to bind the thing up and to own the tone that Campos can’t quite seem to emulate—but after a while, you do come to appreciate the jet-black humor afforded from Pollock’s vocalized perspective. Nearly every scene of the film is engaging due to the acting and the accomplishment of Campos and his top-notch crew (including well-crafted work from cinematographer Lol Crawley and production designer Craig Lathrop), but rarely does anything feel heightened enough to soar or visceral enough to land a blow full on. The film is evocative, but in a staid way. It shows provocative things, but isn’t very provocative in and of itself.
One exception to the film’s status quo would be Robert Pattinson’s Preston Teagardin, a replacement reverend for the Russells’ church who comes up from the South but maybe actually from another planet or Alan Parker’s Angel Heart. If you had told me before I’d seen the film that Pattinson didn’t use a dialect coach and kept his accent secret until filming, well, you wouldn’t have needed to tell me. This is not a criticism, per se, as Pattinson’s Teagardin is never less than totally fascinating, a bundle of incongruent verbal and behavioral tics that is infinitely suggestive. His character also gets to lay out one of the few thematic touchstones for the film: the idea that our delusions and false beliefs are the foundation of all our sins (something that Preston Teagardin would know plenty about first-hand).
For Lenora, her delusion is that Teagardin will bring her closer to God, and this is her undoing. For Arvin, his false belief is that violence is a solution, but this is the only reality that his world allows. Holland keeps the character internalized with his trauma until suddenly he is smoldering and, inevitably, erupts. That’s his destiny, the only thing that the book and the film can allow, too, which is perhaps its own problem. Tied in with that is a world where most women are beacons of light and kindness but lack any sort of agency, but considering the milieu, this feels like less of an issue with the art and more a tragic truth of what it’s trying to depict. So it goes that The Devil All the Time exists almost entirely on some fluctuating horizon between merit and mediocrity.
Campos’ films and his work on the first season of The Sinner have always placed an emphasis on the psychological. In fact, Christine is about as fine a dramatized character study as you can find of a real-life unraveling, honed in and attentive to the titular subject. With the ambitious breadth of something like The Devil All the Time, that title itself indicative of the host of spectres it’d like to encapsulate, Campos struggles to find the same depths. Still, there are hints: shots of crucifixes and dog’s bones and a deer head that criss-cross with each other through the fabric of the film, as characters can’t seem to separate their prayers from the things that haunt them, and God becomes an enabling construct that they each bend in their various ways towards their darkest needs.
A key moment in the film shows Arvin lost in his thoughts, lost in time, unsure of whether he is himself or his father, whether he is the child or is the child his, and what war is he fighting? The film itself mimics this sensation as it flits between its hopeless characters, implying our mass consciousness and the poisoned part of it, the “Devil” that we must fight all the time and forever—or succumb to and become its agents. It may be cluttered and overstuffed, but there is something to be said for how The Devil All the Time depicts the truly collective nature of our spiritual maladies.
While there is no salvation in the film, it does end on a moment of helpless dependency. Over the course of two-plus hours, The Devil All the Time dedicates itself to showing the fundamental inhumanity of man. It shows why and how we can’t be trusted or relied upon—but, sometimes, we’re all we’ve got. Sometimes, an act of faith is letting yourself be in the company of anyone else. Or loving anyone. Or having a child. Is that thematic possibility, the acting and the film’s handsome technicality enough to make it worth watching? Is all that together compelling enough for anyone to want to revisit the film to try to bring its blurry subtext into focus? I don’t know, but personally I’ll be watching this movie at least one more time for whatever the devil it is that Pattinson’s doing in it.
Director: Antonio Campos
Writers: Antonio Campos, Paulo Campos; Donald Ray Pollock (book)
Starring: Tom Holland, Eliza Scanlen, Robert Pattinson, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough, Harry Melling, Mia Wasikowska, Haley Bennett, Sebastian Stan, Bill Skarsgård, Kirstin Griffith, Donald Ray Pollock
Release Date: September 16, 2020 (Netflix)