Over the last decade or so, writer/director Antonio Campos has established himself as a master of intimate, moody character studies. His movies thus far have been rigidly focused on troubled individuals who pose an existential threat to either themselves (Christine) or others (Afterschool; Simon Killer). It’s safe to say he has an interest in homicide and suicide, which might make him the prime candidate to adapt Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time, a novel in which almost every character either takes their own life or that of another member of its sprawling cast.
Yet while Campos’s previous movies have honed in on a single protagonist, here he finds himself in charge of a roster even Robert Altman might struggle to keep control of, with a story that spans the 20 years between the end of WWII and the beginning of the Vietnam conflict. Things are set in motion when Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) arrives home from serving in the former and immediately falls for diner waitress Charlotte (Haley Bennett), whom he wastes no time in wedding. The two give birth to a son, Arvin, who played by Michael Banks Repeta as a nine-year-old and Tom Holland as a late teen, is the closest the film gets to offering us a central protagonist.
Divided between the podunk towns of Knockemstiff, Ohio (which, despite its name is a real place, where author Pollock spent his childhood) and Coal Creek, West Virginia, the narrative sprawls outwards, dragging a host of peripheral characters into Arvin’s orbit. There’s Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), Arvin’s simple-minded stepsister, who becomes a target of school bullies and a predatory preacher (Robert Pattinson); husband and wife serial killers Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy Henderson (Riley Keough), who lure men to their doom using the latter’s physical charms as bait; yet another creepy preacher (Harry Melling) and his crippled, guitar-pickin’ cohort (Pokey LaFarge); and of course, there’s the obligatory crooked Sheriff (a bloated Sebastian Stan).
To a man and woman, all of them are broadly sketched redneck white trash stereotypes, and were Pollock not himself a product of this environment, the film might easily be accused of punching down at America’s rural working class, a group that has rarely been portrayed in sensitive fashion by Hollywood. It doesn’t help that the cast largely consists of Europeans and Antipodeans whose strained accents make them sound like they’ve all got cotton balls of varying sizes wedged into their gums. On paper it’s a hell of a cast, but few of the assembled actors rise above serviceable here. The standout is Pattinson, who embraces how cartoonish the film’s character sketches are, and delivers a wildly entertaining turn as the world’s creepiest Elvis impersonator. His vocal cadence alone is enough to make your skin crawl.
It’s never clear whom we’re supposed to be investing in here. While Holland’s Arvin is the closest we get to a protagonist, he doesn’t have a personality of his own. Arvin exists chiefly to witness and be impacted by atrocities, like the young heroes of Come and See and The Painted Bird. Lay it out in linear fashion and The Devil All the Time doesn’t have much of a plot either. It’s a film that’s heavily indebted to two types of movies that were a
mainstay of ‘90s cinema - Tarantino-esque ensemble crime dramas with non-linear storytelling, and prestige, non-horror Stephen King adaptations. Like so many of the former films, its non-linear structure comes off as clumsy, like a drunk telling a joke and having to return to earlier plot points they forgot to previously make us privy to, and its roster of characters aims for larger than life but lands as dull as ditch water. Like those King adaptations, it believes moody piano music and a soulful voiceover narration can make it seem somehow grander than it really is. Said narration is provided by Pollock himself, yet while he certainly has an ideal voice for it (he sounds like Billy Bob Thornton drowning in chocolate), the narration is mostly either pointless - telling us what we’re watching play out on screen - or lazy, filling in character’s emotional states rather than letting the actors and Campos’s direction fill in such details.
In his short career, Campos has developed a distinctive style, favoring long takes filled with silent introspection, but there’s little of his cinematic MO to be found here. The Devil All the Time has the journeyman look of prestige TV, with impatient editing that’s always desperate to move on to the next chapter or awkwardly return to an earlier important detail. Perhaps, with such an expansive narrative, The Devil All the Time may have been better suited to TV, where each of its characters could have a full episode devoted to their particular shenanigans. That said, at two hours and 20 minutes it’s not much shorter than Altman’s Nashville, which gives us even more characters and subplots yet makes us feel like we’ve known its inhabitants all our lives. It’s not the length, but what you do with it; Campos’s film spends its 138 minutes pumping away robotically in the missionary position, and by its climax we’re not left satisfied, just a little numb.
The Devil All The Time - 2 ½ stars out of 5
Directed by: Antonio Campos; Starring: Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett, Harry Melling, Eliza Scanlen, Pokey LaFarge
Eric Hillis is a film critic living in Dublin who runs the website TheMovieWaffler.com