With COVID-19 continuing to sideline mainstream cinematic productions in 2020 Netflix is continuing to surge and while the “Cuties” scandal has certainly taken a chunk out of their popularity the streaming service is still playing host to some of the most hyped films to be released this year. Case and point, “The Devil All the Time”. Featuring a noteworthy ensemble cast composed of Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Haley Bennett, Robert Pattinson, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan and more, “The Devil All the Time” has been talked up a lot throughout 2020 as one of Netflix’s most anticipated releases. Based on the book of the same name by Donald Ray Pollack, who also narrates the film, and written for the screen by Antonio and Paulo Campos with Antonio directing, “The Devil All the Time” is definitely an acquired taste with a slow burn approach to exploring the undeniable hidden evil of humanity. Some critics have enjoyed it, others found it a slog…I happen to be part of the former group seeing it as an uncompromising must-see.
“The Devil All the Time” is comprised of several different stories that all come together by the end in a ripple effect of actions both good and evil. Set in the Ohio-West Virginia area in the 1940s and 1950s, the story follows Tom Holland’s Arvin, the son of a soldier (Bill Skarsgård) who brought him up with a strong faith and a strong fist. Arvin seeks revenge for actions taken against his innocent sister (Eliza Scanlon) from a local preacher (Robert Pattinson) and some bullies. A second story follows an innocent religious believer named Helen (Mia Wasikowska) and her religious husband Roy (Harry Melling) exploring the tragic result of their marriage and Roy’s religious extremism while a third story follows murderous couple Sandy (Riley Keough) and Carl (Jason Clarke) as they tear through the region. Connecting them all is a corrupt cop and Sandy’s brother Sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan). It’s a mildly complicated mesh of narratives that probably works really well in the chapter-based structure of a book but also translates surprisingly effectively to the screen.
Despite all its jumping around, “The Devil All the Time” possesses a cohesive story that feels perfectly paced and even perfectly chopped up. One big complaint I’ve seen about the film is that is jumps all over the place creating a confusing mess, but I highly disagree. While there were times where I felt like I was missing valuable information to understand what was happening in the story, but a little bit of patience and understanding of storytelling forced me to accept that I wasn’t being provided details because it wasn’t time to know them yet. As pieces come into place throughout the film we realize what we’re supposed to take away from all of it. “The Devil All the Time” is specifically designed to focus on Arvin and how his traumatic childhood and events away from his life during that time all converge into one dramatic mess as he grows up. The ripple effect shown as the different stories progress, all leading to important moments in Arvin’s young adult life, create a mesmerizing examination of cause and effect and how one person’s actions can intentionally or unintentionally corrupt even the purest of us all.
The acting in this film is absolutely one of its strongest talking points. Most of the cast does a fine job, but I don’t have the space to delve into every great performance so I’ll just touch on a couple that stood out for me. Tom Holland specifically takes on such an against-type role compared to the more family-friendly roles he’s know for like Peter Parker in the MCU and his animated endeavors “Onward” and “Spies in Disguise”. He is at the core of this movie and provides a conflicted, tortured soul of a character in Arvin who we just can’t help but sympathize with even when we don’t agree with his actions. Robert Pattinson continues to prove to deniers that he is a true talent as he plays a hypocritical reverend with convincing conviction. Even Jason Clarke, who for me is a very hit-and-miss performer, puts his all into this film. The cast really is one of the best things to experience as they all commit to the darkness hidden beneath the surface of each of their individual characters and their intertwining stories.
One big things lot of people seem to be criticizing in this movie its is graphic nature and extensive use of violence. As is the theme of this review, I disagree with those who believe this to be a negative element of the film. The violence itself is uncompromising as we see Arvin and others beat the living hell out of people from time to time creating a rather visceral representation of pure human rage we don’t often see on the screen even in the most dedicated arthouse productions. It might be off-putting for some, especially those who like to pretend the world and humanity is an all-perfect good, but that’s sadly not the truth. Actions have consequences. Violence is sometimes justified to solve a problem and the incorruptible are often more corruptible than you think. I love movies that can delve into the very human flaws of our species and “The Devil All the Time” manages to do just that spectacularly and in a relatable way. Arvin is a damaged, violent and frustrated man in a world where those who are supposed to be pure and perfect are often the most corrupted which adds up to this film’s central theme, the hidden evil within humanity and how one action creates an effect either now or later. For me it proved to be an engaging and engrossing examination of humanity and the flaws of our world, both today and in our past. Hypocrisy, violence, selfishness, mental health, and even something as simple as cancer all play a role in one innocent child’s evolution into a capable, confused and violent adult. It’s impossible to effectively show that transformation and the extent of that corruption without going all in.
Another divisive element of this movie is the tone. This is a depressing movie, which you should expect judging by my previous discussions about its themes and violence. “The Devil All the Time” embraces a sense of hopelessness refusing to water down the darkness within its characters and story, yet you kind of want to root for a lot of these people. While there are some downright horrible individuals, several characters are simply flawed human beings scarred by their choices or factors out of their control. The depressing realities of this movie prevents us from seeing these characters as pure, but it doesn’t prevent us from relating to them, maybe even, dare I say, believing them to be in the right by some skewed justification. The best movies are the ones that can make you feel for the characters, understand them and relate to them, and “The Devil All the Time” does just that laying out clear motivations and building on its central theme of cause and effect. It’s not for the feint of heart but that’s not a bad thing and I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much if it did refuse to examine these difficult realities the way that it does.
“The Devil All the Time” is not an easy film to watch. It’s violent, unsettling, and a slow burn that takes popular and talented actors and puts them in an environment many are probably not used to seeing them in. For me it was awesome. It’s raw, uncompromising and insightful in its examination of the concepts of hypocrisy, cause and effect, and the hidden demons and evils that shape people whether they realize it or not. Those aren’t easy themes to tackle, but the talented cast, effective writing and storytelling, and even the narration from the author himself all help sell this truly disturbing tale of the darkness within us all. Contrary to some critics I loved this movie and I saw it as one of the most affecting and thought-provoking films of the year so far. A great cast, focused pacing and an unrelenting dedication to its tone and ideas all add up to an awesome and disturbing viewing experience.