Content warning: This film includes an incredibly horrific scene of animal cruelty in the midst of many horrific scenes humans cruelty to each other.
The Devil All the Time is a bit of a sprawling, interconnected story that takes place between 1945 and 1965. The piece that connects the people and the story is a stretch of road between Knockemstiff, OH and Coal Creek, WV. Willard instills in his son Arvin the values of choosing the right time to fight. Carl shows Sandy the beauty in death. Lenora is lonely and wants for someone to talk to, but only finds the predatory Preston. Roy wants to be a miracle worker for God, but fails when he puts others' flesh on the line to do it. Lee wants power and will do anything to get it. The film stars Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Harry Melling, Bill Skarsgård, Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowska, Eliza Scanlen, Riley Keough, Haley Bennett, Sebastian Stan, and as the narrator, author of the original work, Donald Ray Pollock. The film is written by Antonio and Paulo Campos and directed by Antonio Campos. The film is streaming exclusively on Netflix.
This film is brutal. I write that in the most literal sense of the word as it has multiple instances of the most horrific violence. The strangest part is that we often only see the aftermath, which is just as disturbing as if we had scene the acts themselves. A lot of the lead up is left to our imaginations, which is usually a good technique when covering a disturbing subject matter, but when a film flits between horrific acts, the imagination is overwhelmed with terrible imagery. Which is why tone is very important.
The film as it plays is a harsh drama, but borrows heavily from dark comedic sources. The narration, which I will get to in detail, often has a wry point of view. It's like the novel that the film is based on has more than a bit of irony within it. Even the music in places takes on a sardonic tone, but the imagery is nothing, but grim. The actors all play it completely straight and disturbing. It's like the pieces of the film were brought together for entirely different purposes. The characters and violence could be pulled from any Coen brothers or Tarantino film, but it's missing any sort of tongue in cheek feel or Tarantino's signature needle drops.
Cheekiness is all over the narration, though. There's a folksy sensibility that also seems borrowed from both the Tarantino and Coen oeuvre. Though, it also takes on an audio book quality, breaking in with things like "He thought..." or "What he always wanted..." completely ripping us from the story on screen. I can understand if the author's voice is strong, you would want to keep that in the adaptation, but this is just lazy visual storytelling. And if the novel had a tone of sardonic dark humor, the script fails to capture that. The only thing that the narration might serve is to keep track of the characters because there are a lot of them and there is quite a bit of time between first appearance and last for some of them. Even then, though, the narration spoon feeds us information we see later on anyway.
One of the most confounding instances of narration is when we're told Helen will never see her daughter again and her body won't be found for seven years. That happens in a scene. It's obvious from the scene it is happening in. What else is obvious is that the original text had no real reason to give any woman a true personality or motivation beyond finding a husband and having children. The screenwriters didn't seek to correct that either with every woman a victim in some way or other. Even when one of the women decides she wants to fight back, she makes a mistake and dies before she can make her stand. Then there's that terrible narration again giving us a wry, inappropriate insight into her final seconds that cheapens what life she had.
I do love a passionate, Southern preacher, though. Harry Melling has come a long way from Dudley Dursley. He's got an incredible passion and intensity that comes through in his showmanship as Roy. His desperation to be a vessel for the Lord is enthralling and could have made a great story on its own. In contrast, Robert Pattinson, who has come a long way from Edward Cullen, is superbly slimy as the preacher that comes in to replace the older man who's sick. He's predatory, cruel, ostentatious and belittling. His rise and fall could also have been its own sordid film.
The Devil All the Time feels like an attempt to mix together several stories by Flannery O'Connor, but it misses entirely on the irony and morality of those stories and presents a far more nihilistic view. The people who have done bad get their comeuppance, sure, but their victims never receive a justice that we see. The tone issues, the brutality and the fact that it's a slog at nearly two and a half hours of run time suggest that I recommend you find a better use for your time. Skip this one and put in Blood Simple by the Coens or pick up Flannery O'Connor's story of a wayward preacher, Wise Blood made into a funny and well acted film by John Huston.