In the United States there has long been a strange fascination with stories of the American backwoods — gritty tales of brazen crime, graphic murder, religious fanaticism and twisted mentalities. They fixate on the post-war rural South and glorify the violence that erupts among the backwoods folk. And there’s never a person of color in sight.
This is the vein of “The Devil All the Time,” a stark tale of rural Ohio and West Virginia in the 1950s and ‘60s. It’s a big story, with lots of people to keep track of — characters who connect in unexpected ways and storylines that swing around to fill in gaps. There are enough familiar faces in its vast ensemble cast to keep it relevant, but in the end, the biggest detriment to “Devil” is that it didn’t need to be made.
“Devil” is built around an amalgamation of caricatures. The disturbed veteran, the pious virgin, the self-important priest, the psycho killer, the corrupt sheriff — they’re all built on simple characteristics that drive home exactly what kind of story it is, and where you’ve seen it before. All of the characters are forced toward extremes — murderer or victim, religious fanatic or indifferent bystander. The timeline jumps around haphazardly to keep up with the individual plots (which are too complicated to explain in a few sentences, so I won’t try), and the opening exposition is long and complex because every backtrack incorporates seemingly peripheral characters into the body of the story.
The film’s standout performances are its biggest names: Robert Pattinson (“The Lighthouse”) as Preacher Preston Teagardin, Bill Skarsgård (“It”) as Willard Russell and Tom Holland (“Spider-Man: Far From Home”) as Arvin Russell. Pattinson’s performance is fascinatingly exaggerated, but effective: Every word out of his mouth sounds almost like a comedic impression of a slimy Southern preacher rather than a realization of one, resulting in a character who is easy to despise. And Skarsgård’s compelling portrayal of a troubled war veteran gives us the beginnings of Arvin’s relationship with violence — a tradition of thoughtful, aggressive vengeance that is passed on from father to son.
Though it takes 45 minutes of time jumps and exposition before our first glimpse of Holland, the wait is worth it — not only because of how Holland pulls off a denim jacket, but also due to the skill he uses to approach the character. He is perfectly expressionless; you can tell exactly how much he cares for his step-sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen, “Little Women”) or hates the bullies that torment her without much change in his facial expression. His quiet pain is present after every tragedy, perfectly balanced in a film where almost every other character feels out of control. A scene in which Arvin confronts Preacher Teagardin is a reminder of what happens when talented actors work together: The quiet intensity from Holland and selfish ignorance from Pattinson combine to create a masterful tension.
“The Devil All the Time” has all of the traits of a backwoods story. The women are essentially disposable beyond emotional significance, killed off one by one. Every character’s moral compass is a shade of grey, where the ethics of point-blank murder depend on the character. Because actions don’t actually speak louder than words, scenes are overlaid with omniscient narration in a strong Southern drawl — done by Donald Ray Pollack, the author of the book on which the film is based — to give you a small amount of insight. And there’s a disturbing on-screen killing about every five minutes.
This film is a marathon. It’s nearly 140 minutes long, deeply captivating at times but brutally slow at others. The film is classified as a psychological thriller, but it’s not too thrilling, and the only thing psychological about it is the twisted psyches of the killers. Though it’s visually captivating, the plot doesn’t feel much like a plot, and so the ending doesn’t feel much like an ending. All throughout “The Devil All the Time,” violence begets violence; yet even as the layers of dark and disturbing fuse towards something towards a conclusion, it’s difficult to figure out what you were supposed to learn that you didn’t already know.
Daily Arts Writer Kari Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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