The Devil All the Time (2020)
★★ / ★★★★
“Some people are born just so they can be buried.”
Religion is like medicine. For some, it is taken like vitamins: as maintenance, a way to keep impure thoughts and sins at bay. It is a guide, a way of living, perhaps even serving as inspiration to become a better person. For others, however, it becomes an addiction; like cancer, it takes over the whole being. It kills you from the inside, slowly but surely. You live and die by the rules of the Bible. The addiction becomes so overwhelming, it may seep out of you and take others along for the ride. In “The Devil All the Time,” the subjects are taken for a ride.
The work is based upon the novel by Donald Ray Pollock and we follow almost a dozen characters who have been touched by religion in some way. We watch how belief in God, the importance of prayer, and keeping faith get passed down, like DNA, from one generation to another… and as people move across states from Ohio to West Virginia—then back again. On paper, it is a fascinating story of people simply living their lives and dealing with the cards they’re dealt with. It is survive or perish out there. But as a film, it is dramatically inert. Notice that halfway through the picture it remains so busy in laying out foundations as why we should care for the individuals being paraded on screen that it forgets to answer the question, “So what?”
A boy named Arvin Russell (played by Michael Banks as a nine-year-old in 1957 and Tom Holland as a teenager in 1965) is the fulcrum of this ambitious tale. His father (Bill Skarsgård) is a U.S. Marine veteran who served in World War II. In Japan, Willard witnessed a bloodied marine hanging from a cross as thousands of flies eat him alive. Willard shoots the man dead as an act of mercy. But something inside Willard died along with that marine. We follow him as a single man, a husband (the wife played by Haley Bennett—a real presence) and later as a father who feels as though he is just hanging on by a thread. Skarsgård convincingly carries the man’s mental heaviness in the eyes, his body, his entire being.
There is a memorable sequence in which Willard teaches young Arvin how to stand up for himself (he is bullied in school)—and the ones he loves. Violence sometimes being the answer is a lesson that Arvin chooses to carry with him. I appreciated how in some scenes, whether it be through lighting, framing of a face, or movement of the camera, looking at the increasingly desperate young man is like laying eyes once again on the tormented father.
But the supporting characters are not given the amount of time and depth as they should have if the story were to be complete. We meet the likes of Sandy and Carl (Riley Keough, Jason Clarke) who murder hitchhikers (and take pictures for souvenirs), Preston the tyro preacher (Robert Pattinson) who is a walking hypocrite to a corrupt cop (Sebastian Stan) who values his reputation above all. But they remain just that: figures that Arvin the good guy must come across eventually.
But why must he come across them? Does each encounter unveil something new about Arvin? Does it awaken or solve past traumas? Will these experiences shape the man he will become? In addition, as corpses pile up, I found myself feeling apathetic. “Well, there she goes,” I caught myself thinking at some point, instead of feeling specific and powerful emotions due to the fact that a person’s journey has been cut short, the rest of her life un-lived.
Antonio Campos directs the film in an unhurried manner, conscious about providing event and character details that will prove to be crucial later on. He also has a grasp of how poor people live, how it is like to be inside their homes, the clothes they wear, their occupations, the kinds of food they serve. There is without question that the director (who co-wrote the screenplay with Paulo Campos) cares about telling a human story with all the complexities that come with it. But he is not successful in mining the drama once all the pieces are in place to deliver knockout blows. It fails to show why this specific story is worth telling.
“The Devil All the Time” might have been better off as a two- or three-part miniseries. It certainly would have allowed more time for details about the supporting characters to be fully ironed out. And so when the inevitable crossing of paths occur, we’d have a better appreciation of every single moving part. But at its current state, it is unrealized potential, a disappointment.