NETFLIX FILM REVIEW: THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020)
Directed by: Antonio Campos
Produced by: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker, Randall Poster, Max Born
Screenplay by: Antonio Campos, Paulo Campos
Based on: The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock
Cast: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, Harry Melling, etc.
Narrated by: Donald Ray Pollock
Music by: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Cinematography: Lol Crawley
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
Netflix’s latest major film release is a literary adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s psychological thriller, The Devil All the Time (2020). One has to believe it is a pretty faithful adaptation because the novelist himself narrates the tale to us via voiceover. Set in the years after World War II, the grim events unfold in the states of Ohio and West Virginia, respectively. While the action is not located in the deep South, the story has many of the tropes synonymous with the Southern Gothic genre, notably: religious fanaticism, explicit sexuality, flawed characters, sickening violence, poverty and human alienation.
The film, directed by Antonio Campos — who helmed the under-rated character study, Christine (2016) — starts extremely purposefully. Returning soldier, Miller Jones (Bill Skarsgard), meets a waitress on his bus journey home and eventually marries her. Both Skarsgard and Hayley Bennett, portraying his wife, inhabit empathetic characters working hard to bring up their son and saving for their own place. Jones, however, is haunted by a traumatic incident in the Pacific, and strives for solace in God and family. Indeed, the corrupt force of religious mania spreads like a cancer throughout The Devil All the Time (2020), becoming a constant threat and reason for many of the characters downfall.
Just as I was connecting with Jones’ life and becoming absorbed by Bill Skarsgard’s commanding performance, tragedy strikes and the narrative takes one of several jarring switches between characters. As such the film does not really have a strong plot, meandering from one character to another witnessing all manner of horrific events fate throws at them. Because, let’s be honest, The Devil All the Time (2020), is no way close to being a feelgood film. In fact, it revels in representing the evil acts of so-called human beings. Thus, throughout I felt a constant sense of dread and anxiety. Barely had Skarsgard misery ended and we are then introduced to the tragedies of characters portrayed by Harry Melling and Mia Wasikowska. Simultaneously, Jason Clarke and Riley Keough join the fray as two violent and sex-driven thrill-seekers. Yet, they are weakly written characters who again drive the mood of the film into pitch blackness.
The film gathers some strength and momentum n the middle act when Tom Holland’s son of Miller Jones comes of age. By focussing on his story we get more drama and emotion, especially where his relationship with his step-sister (Eliza Scanlan) is concerned. Holland gives an excellent performance as the young man attempting to make his way in this filthy and ungodly world. Similarly, Robert Pattinson’s oily Preacher oozes repugnant charm in another sterling piece of acting work. Alas, Sebastian Stan’s Sheriff and Douglas Hodge’s rural gangster are given short shrift in another crime subplot which goes nowhere.
Overall, Antonio Campos delivers an extremely solid thriller from an acting and thematic standpoint. Unfortunately, the fragmented screenplay should arguably have been given a more committed plotline. Of course, it has most likely shadowed the structure of the source novel so therein lies the rub. Having said that, despite the structural shortcomings, there are many shocking and violent set-pieces to satisfy horror fans. Ultimately though, The Devil All the Time (2020) lacks redemption, catharsis and even some decent suspense. By the end we are given few characters to care about and delivered the pessimistic vision that life is a belt of misery. Even a suggestion of sugar helps the poison go down and this film offers very little in the way of sweetness or light.