Directed By Antonio Campos
Starring – Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, Haley Bennett
The Plot – Set in rural southern Ohio and West Virginia, the film follows a cast of compelling and bizarre characters from the end of World War II to the 1960s. There’s Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgaard), tormented veteran of the carnage in the South Pacific, who can’t save his beautiful wife, Charlotte (Bennett), from an agonizing death by cancer no matter how much sacrificial blood he pours on his “prayer log.” There’s Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy Henderson (Riley Keough), a husband-and-wife team of serial killers, who troll America’s highways searching for suitable models to photograph and exterminate. There’s the spider-handling preacher Roy (Harry Melling) and his crippled virtuoso-guitar-playing sidekick, Theodore (Pokey LaFarge), running from the law. And caught in the middle of all this is Arvin Eugene Russell (Holland), Willard and Charlotte’s orphaned son, who grows up to be a good but also violent man in his own right.
Rated R for violence, bloody/disturbing images, sexual content, graphic nudity, and adult language throughout
– Pivotal themes. This is very much a character study above all else, and one that dissects and contrasts human behavior through the justification of religion for the various bad things that its characters commit. Similar to last year’s “Them That Follow”, translation of the word of God is perpetrated in its loosest definition, bringing many different forms of backlash to come with it. For some, it’s the reliance that their devotion to such will return reward for a sacrifice, for others it’s that feeling of invincibility or arrogance that comes with donning the cloth and holding the influence of the townspeople in your hands, and often at your disposal. It offers a stirring conversation piece not only about the misuse of this important factor in ones life, but also if said influence is the only thing keeping them from being a terrible person. An answer that for this movie has a resounding yes in nearly the entirety of its mixed batch of characters and unnerving personalities.
– Timely production. There’s plenty that goes into this transformational quality that captures various decades of cultural resonance throughout the picture, and in Netflix’s case conjures up some artistic decisions that they often balk at. I’m of course talking about the 35 mm print that the entirety of the film is shot on, preserving a grainy texture to the shot compositions and moody atmosphere that cinematographer Lol Crawley emits like a cloud of despair that continuously hangs over these troubled characters and towns like an inescapable cloud of poison. In addition to this, the production design is subtly effective, but consistently apparent, combining classic automobiles and wardrobe designs to play to the forefront of the movie’s imagery, all the while switching it up throughout the various timely jumps that the movie frequents throughout. Timely resonance is difficult enough to maintain without it becoming an obvious wet blanket to the movie’s subtle artistic merit, but to conjure this during two distinctly diverse time periods is all the more impressive, giving this movie a three-dimensional quality to its setting that rubs off on the immersive investment of the audience seamlessly.
– Non-linear storytelling. Instead of following a straight and narrow path that takes us through the various time periods in and around these characters lives, the film uses an unorthodox level of storytelling that frequently rewinds and fast forward’s throughout the movie’s timeline. The negative to this is that every single character receives a backstory, which can sometimes feel tedious and halting to the movie’s current day narrative, but the positive is that it grants us access into the past traumas and incidents that is illustrated in the foreground of said narrative. What’s especially beneficial is that it’s entirely easy to outline the periods, thanks in whole to the accommodation of on-screen text that pops up to distinguish between these periods. The gimmick further plays into the importance and rarity of each interaction between two characters in entirely different subplots, hinting that in life there are no coincidences, only choices that blaze each of our paths to destiny.
– Meaning behind the music. The movie’s religiously bluegrass-dominated musical score is coherently enough in playing towards its countryside setting, but the intelligence used to craft some of these random song selections proved that they do more than scratch the surface at the complexity of the scenes they accompany. This is where I recommend that you watch the film with subtitles on, because it’s only then that you can decipher the truly bleak meaning at what is audibly outlining each intention. It takes several songs pertaining God’s message, and fleshes them out for an entirely different realization as seen through the context of the scene, and lyrically establishes presence in the mentality of each character who is leading the progression of each sequence. Musical scores used to be used in this manner all the time before record sales became a soundtrack’s sole intention, and thanks to some cerebral outlining at the complete picture of this film’s story, we welcome it back with open arms.
– Small town circumstance. It’s become a cliche to say that a movie’s setting is a character in the film, but that’s totally the case when you spot a bunch of variously scattered chess pieces with only the board they move on to be their one shared consistency. For these Ohio and West Virginia towns respectively, there’s a claustrophobia outlined in small town ideals where everyone knows each other, and nothing remains secret for too long, casting a feeling of inevitable urgency to what transpires almost immediately. In addition to this, bad luck spreads like a wildfire, engulfing everyone whole, and judging these characters with the mentality of kill or be killed to be the outlining narrative. Call it the supposed suicidal pistol of Adolf Hitler, which gets introduced to the film in the first couple scenes, or influences beyond anyone’s control that dictate behavior. Either way, Knockemstiff, the primary setting, is one that is appropriately named for a crew like this, and Campos illustrates it with David Lynch-like mysticism that we can’t turn away from, no matter how badly we might want to.
– Justified narration. I’ve never been a fan of audible direction, mainly because it feels like a tool of convenience for a director wanting to hold hands with their audience so that they can faithfully follow what’s transpiring. That isn’t the case here, as not only does the narration serve a purpose in filling in the blanks with what’s not shown in between the cracks, but the person voicing it is none other than the author who penned the novel of the same name; Donald Ray Pollock. What I love about his deliveries is the amount of personality that he instills in each character description, primarily that of Jason Clarke’s Carl Henderson, whom he seems to loathe with unabashed disdain. He almost represents the mentality of the audience beat for beat with what transpires, instead of a monotonously bipartisan figure that most narratives become saddled with, and gives the movie this seal of approval from its literary creator.
– Unpredictable. Above all else, this is a movie that you shouldn’t grow attached to any one character because all of them are expendable to the movie’s spontaneity. This is established almost immediately during the film’s opening ten minutes, when three different characters whom we’ve spent time and exposition investing in are killed, setting the precedent for what’s to come with over 134 minutes of vicious brutality. It’s not a full-on horror film, but there’s certainly horror genre elements to what is inflicted, most of the time doing so with bursts of emotional registry that is as untimely as it can get. It’s very difficult to maintain uncertainty in a film when most of them are easily telegraphed in a film’s trailer. “The Devil All the Time” is not that movie, instead serving up its consequences and justice in the most unapologetic circumstances, and one that will have you scratching your head wondering who will be left standing by the movie’s finale, and what will be left of them in the process?
– A sky of stars. This is easily the best ensemble cast for the 2020 movie year, and I say that because the collection of familiar faces and prestigious talent only scratches the surface in the central protagonists listed above, who are given top billing. Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowsa, Bill Skarsgard, Riley Keough, Sebastian Stan, Harry Melling. The list goes on almost as long as the movie does. Pattinson is once again the show-stealer for me, only requiring thirty minutes of screen time to earn that honor, all the while mustering up a chameleon character who is every bit conniving as he is powerful with the words he uses to inspire a church’s followers. Following him is Stan, who outlines a character transformation brought to boil with the many combustible elements surrounding him, which often bring out the monster within him made even more dangerous because he’s a man of the law. Holland is also buzzworthy, with what is his best acting role to date, combining enough heart for family, and haunt from the past that he wears like a wheel steering his every decision.
– Impatient pacing. This is all over the place, but primarily in the variety between the first and second acts, which feel like entirely different movies for what they do with their minutes. The opening forty-five minutes of this movie speeds through our set-ups and initial engagements with the kind of ferocity that not only underscores the dramatic tension entirely, but also the heft of the bodies it leaves in the dust during its path of destruction. During the second act, things are halted with screeching intensity, suddenly opting to invest in the long term with a series of subplots that take a bit longer to manufacture their purpose. Personally, I prefer the second act, because nothing about the many characters and subplots deserves to be sped through, and would instead be better suited for a television series that has enough time to dedicate to each character an entire episode of material that is being shoehorned into a slightly longer than two hour feature film.
– Painful experience. Even though a majority of this film was enjoyed by yours truly, and the production aspects never disappoint, the tonal capacity and repetitive nature of the script makes it difficult to attain this as anything other than a one and done experience. More times than not, I appreciate a film that remains tonally committed throughout the entirety of its picture, but when the material is this gritty and depressing between these moments of loss, even a slight moment of comical release could’ve went a long way in playing towards even a semblance of optimism that this movie so desperately could use. The set-up and payoffs are definitely consequential to the point that the movie never stunts its audience, but the overwhelming number of victims makes the structure an inevitable victim to repetition, and one that could make the ambitious sit a difficult one for audiences not anxious to watch a movie that makes them constantly depressed.
My Grade: 8/10 or B