Serial killers, corrupt cops, religious fanatics and blood sacrifices: Antonio Campos’ “The Devil All the Time” is no stranger to these sinful elements. Set against the backdrop of post-World War II, the characters and events in a couple Ohio and West Virginia towns converge around the life of Arvin Russell (Tom Holland), a young man seeking justice.
This movie plays a lot with the ideas of history repeating itself, with scenes and dialogue drawing parallels between Arvin and his father, Willard (Bill Skarsgård). It also does this between the choices Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) makes and those of her mother, Helen (Mia Wasikowska). I will say I really enjoyed the attention to detail in the drawn parallels. After Arvin beats up some bullies, he cleans his bloodied hands in the same way as his father and says the same line Willard once said to him, “There’s a lot of no good sons of bitches out there,” to Lenora. On the other hand, both Helen and Lenora find themselves drawn to the power that preachers have, and this only leads to rather unfortunate fates, to say the least.
The beginning of the film follows Arvin’s father as he comes home from the war and falls in love with a waitress. A series of unfortunate events unfold, including cancer, a blood sacrifice and delusions, that lead to Arvin being orphaned at a young age, while elsewhere, Lenora is orphaned as a result of a weird cocktail of her religious zealot of a father and a serial killer couple.
The thing is, the events that trigger Arvin’s quest for justice don’t really occur until the middle of the movie. While watching the first half of the film, I sometimes thought, “What’s the point of all this?”
The film jumps into the future, when Arvin and Lenora are young adults, and a perverse preacher (Robert Pattinson) preys upon Lenora. I understand the first half of the film was for exposition and to set up parallels between characters as they age, but it honestly felt dull and sprinkled with unnecessary violence.
There is a lot of grisly violence in this film, a lot of it residing in characters being shot to death. “The Devil All the Time” isn’t too gory, but a lot of the events and deaths in the film have a feeling of pointlessness to them.
At least the film has a wide cast of characters, despite being blindingly White, that help weave together a creative narrative as they all crescendo into one another. The serial killer couple, Sandy and Carl, like to pick up good-looking hitchhikers. After Sandy has sex with them, Carl likes to take photos of them both during sex and while the hitchikers beg for their lives before they’re killed. These two are unknowingly interconnected with Lenora, and later with Arvin. Sandy is the sister of the corrupt Sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan), who plays an important role in Arvin’s life.
Probably the biggest reason why you should watch “The Devil All the Time” is for its acting. Holland and Pattinson’s performances in this film are probably some of the best from the two actors. The climax of the movie lies within the standoff scene between the two actors, setting into motion a chain of events where the other characters converge around Holland’s character during the falling action.
There will be minor spoilers in the next paragraph. Skip ahead if you wish to avoid them.
The pivotal scene in the second half of the film between Pattinson and Holland is what really stunned me. The standoff between them is monumental. Arvin enters the church with his father’s pistol, his hands shaking and his breath shuddering, he confesses his sins to Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) by actually retelling the events of the sexual assault that Teagardin puts girls of the church through. The seven-minute scene, in which you can see Holland’s anxiety turn to anger as it brews in his chest, combined with Pattinson’s initial prowess and menace that later turns to fear and egomania, is the absolute highlight of “The Devil All the Time.” It almost makes the rest of the film feel worth it, as the events preceding it builds up to a crescendo of Arvin shooting and killing Teagardin as vengeance for the death of Lenora.
If only the rest of the film could be this powerful.
“The Devil All the Time” has a really great cast and stellar performances, complete with narration by Donald Ray Pollock, the author of the book which the film takes its source material from. But to no avail, it progresses too slowly by clocking in at 138 minutes, and much of the film feels unnecessary. Somewhere, toward the end of the film, Bodecker says, “Some people were born just so they could be buried.” Well, that can apply to movies too.