Director Antonio Campos’ psychological thriller, The Devil All The Time, is based on the novel of the same name from Donald Ray Pollock, which follows the lives of multiple characters and examines generational violence. Interestingly, Donald Ray Pollock is also the narrator in the film, and adds some authenticity and emotions to a few scenes. However, his work as a narrator isn’t enough to give this cinematic adaption the depth it desperately needs.

The Devil All the Time is a bit of a mixed bag. While it appreciably tries to tackle a complicated phenomenon like religious violence, it also seems to be overwhelmed by its subject matter. At 138 minutes, the film is just too short — it’s unable to do justice to the various timelines in the book in a satisfactory way.

The list of characters is long, and the violence is deep. There’s Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), a man who shoots a fellow soldier during World War II in the 1940s, to put him out of his misery. The image of Gunnery Sergeant Miller Jones, skinned alive and nailed to a cross, haunts Willard to the end of his days. William later meets Charlotte and the two have a son named Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta).

The Devil All The Time seems more interested in shocking us with the book’s horrific scenes rather than in a nuanced character study

When Charlotte gets cancer in 1957, Willard prays like a madman for her health. He brutally sacrifices Arvin’s dog to save her. It’s another frustrating example of films cheaply using animal cruelty to shock viewers. Arvin goes to live with his grandmother (Emma Kristin Griffith) and her adoptive daughter Lenora Laferty (Ever Eloise Landrum).

In 1965, Arvin is gifted his father’s pistol, which eventually fuels his own aggression. He is now played by Tom Holland while Lenora is played by Eliza Scanlen. Lenora also comes from a tragic background. Her father, Roy, was an evangelical preacher who poured spiders on his head to impress his followers. After having a daughter with his wife Helen Hatton (Mia Wasikowska), Roy became even more delusional when his brain was exposed to spider venom. Of course, this is a vastly different reaction to spiders than his co-star Tom Holland had in his Marvel franchise.

But I digress.

Like Arvin, Lenora must live with Arvin’s grandmother because religion and violence tore her family apart. Soon, we meet other disturbing characters such as Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), a preacher who preys on girls.

The Devil All the Time continues to up the ante with more religion-fueled violence, tragedy, rape, creepy fetishes, sexual assaults etc. Unfortunately, the film seems more interested in shocking us with a mechanical depiction of the book’s horrific scenes rather than a nuanced character study. With a little more care and effort, The Devil All the Time could have been one of the best films of the year. Instead, it’s a mildly entertaining film at best, thanks to its atmosphere and exceptional performances.

Watching Tom Holland share the screen with Robert Pattinson is fun. We already knew that Robert Pattinson is a gifted actor, but Tom Holland does well to shake his ‘nice boy’ persona in a gritty performance. If you have the stomach for it, The Devil All the Time is worth a watch. It’s just a pity that this film wasn’t adapted into a miniseries instead of a feature film by Netflix.

Rated R for violence, bloody image, graphic nudity and language

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 11th, 2020