View of Main Street that was featured in “The Devil All the Time.” Photo by Madelyn Alexander.
Antonio Campos’ “The Devil All the Time” injects a star-studded cast into a dark Appalachian gothic narrative. The film follows Arvin Russell, portrayed by Tom Holland, as he combats the malevolent characters that are intertwined with his family, examining the connections between religion, evil and violence. However, the narrative feels largely directionless for majority of the film’s runtime, losing much of its direction and conviction to its own ambition.
“The Devil All the Time” is not a bad movie by any means. It does southern gothic well, intertwining religion and family with horror and terror. The setting lends itself really well to the movie — quiet, rural West Virginia and Ohio juxtaposes the horrible acts of violence committed throughout the film.
There are plenty of strong performances too. Tom Holland proves his abilities outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a decidedly darker and grittier role than his previous niche as Peter Parker. Bill Skarsgård is very convincing in his role of Willard Russell, a troubled World War II veteran trying to lead a normal life in the wake of extreme trauma; nailing every outburst of emotion in a startlingly brilliant way. Riley Keough brings one of the strongest performances in the film as Sandy Henderson, drop-dead gorgeous and charming, but trapped in an abusive relationship she can’t escape. And, if you can look past the poorly executed Southern accent, Robert Pattinson does a phenomenal job as hotshot Reverend Preston Teagardin.
However, the film definitely falters in several places. The main problem is that it is too ambitious of a project.
There are too many different plotlines going on at once. The first forty-five minutes of the film are spent establishing characters and storylines only to have majority of them killed off fairly quickly after being introduced in order to provide a little bit of context to the storyline later on in the movie.
Once you get past the unnecessarily long prologue, there are two different storylines—one plot following Arvin’s family and another following serial killer couple Sandy and Carl Henderson (Carl being played by Jason Clarke).
Obviously, there’s no problem with having an a-plot and a b-plot. However, it’s generally a good idea to have these two plots connected to each other in some way. Both plots have subplots as well, not really allowing the audience any time to engage with any of the storylines well. The two main plotlines don’t even intersect with each other until the last thirty minutes of the movie, in what feels like a sloppy attempt to tie the two together. Both main plotlines here could have functioned as a-plots for two different movies. And they should’ve been two separate movies! They’re both interesting stories by themselves, but trying to marry them just left the whole narrative feeling muddled.
Additionally, there wasn’t any discernable message that the film was trying to convey outside of evil people are everywhere and bad things happen to good people. Sometimes it’s fine for movies to not necessarily have a big deep message. “The Devil All the Time” wasn’t meant to just be those things.
It spent too much time focusing on characterization to just be those things. And, at many points, it felt like it was on the cusp of examining a deeper message — examining why bad things happen to good people or why some people do terrible things, but it never got past a very surface level examination of these ideas. Again, that can be chalked up to the fact that it was trying to focus on too many different storylines at once, not leaving the filmmakers room to really examine the themes present in any of them.
This is a film that does not shy away from showing women suffering, but it only does so to further develop the men in the movie. Female characters throughout the film were continually used only to either highlight how terrible and evil a male character is or create a revenge arc plotline for a male character.
In doing this, it sacrifices what could’ve been really compelling and interesting character arcs for its female characters. As mentioned above, Keough’s performance as Sandy was one of the strongest in the film and followed the most interesting storyline too. However, they ultimately ended up sacrificing what could’ve been a really satisfying storyline of escaping an abusive relationship and regaining her autonomy to advance Arvin’s storyline, leaving Sandy’s character to ultimately fall flat.
Overall, “The Devil All the Time” definitely has its moments. The acting is solid, and the dark storyline is, at least initially, really engaging for the audience. Unfortunately, it does end up flopping in a lot of ways, mostly by dividing its focus between too many differing plotlines and not investing enough time in advancing the arcs of all its main characters, leaving the audience feeling largely unsatisfied with the story as a whole.