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Review: ‘The Devil All the Time’ struggles to manage a sprawling narrative

“The Devil All the Time” delivers impressive performances, but struggles to connect its string of tragic events. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

After all the doom and gloom this year has brought the world, why not add a little bit more misery on the big screen? Over the span of two hours and 18 minutes, that’s exactly what “The Devil All the Time” does, depicting tragedy after tragedy until everyone on screen shares the same glum fate.

Director Antonio Campos’s latest film tackles a sprawling narrative that spans generations, as characters across two dull, Appalachian towns are inexorably linked together by the same, never ending misfortunate. Highlighted by its star-studded cast, “The Devil All the Time” has all the makings of a prestige crime drama, and while it certainly hits some of its marks, ultimately the end result is shallow, feeling more like a series of isolated scenes rather than a cohesive film.

Tom Holland as Arvin Russell in “The Devil All The Time.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

To be quite honest, there isn’t much of a central narrative arc here other than the shared violence, death and misery between characters and how it ties them together. Spanning nearly two decades between World War II and the Vietnam War, “The Devil All the Time” follows the growth and development of Arvin Russell (Tom Holland). As a young boy (Michael Banks Repeta) Arvin is exposed to tremendous tragedy. From the death of his mother to the gruesome crucifixion of his beloved dog at the hands of his father, it’s no wonder he ends up as a scarred and haunted adult. Through it all, Arvin’s father, Willard (Bill Skarsgård), forces his twisted, fanatic view on prayer and religion on his son, all the way up until his own suicide – which Arvin also witnesses.

After being orphaned, Arvin goes to live with his grandmother (Kristin Griffith), but the sinister acts continue to plague his fate. Whether it’s his new step sister, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), and her family, new small-town preacher Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), a dirty cop like Sheriff Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) or a team of serial murderers like Sandy and Carl Henderson (Riley Keough and Jason Clarke), tragedy continues to surround Arvin. As he grows from a young boy into a man, Arvin is forced to reckon with the violence and beliefs he has inherited from his extremist father and those around him, as he fights his own personal demons and tries to find his way.

Robert Pattinson as Preston Teagardin in “The Devil All The Time.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

As “The Devil All the Time” attempts to unravel years of trauma and pain, the film feels rushed disjointed, even at a 138-minute runtime. Working as a noir-crime-psychological thriller hybrid, the film slowly unfolds its mystery as each tragedy occurs, but without a compelling central narrative – other than shared misery – its hard for these events to truly feel connected. There’s certainly potential for an intricately woven story here, as is presented in the award-winning novel, but film doesn’t seem to be the most effective medium. Instead, with this almost chapter-like approach, “The Devil All the Time” may have been better suited as a prestige limited series with the time and leeway to fully explore each isolated terror and the details that link them together.

Without that expanded runtime to allow the story to naturally progress, the film depends on an unknown narrator – in this case voiced by the book’s author Donald Ray Pollock – to help move things along. While Pollock’s narration is no doubt essential to understanding the events and the non-linear timeline, it oftentimes feels as jarring as the film’s gratuitous violence. After witnessing brutal murders, heartbreak or tragedy, hearing a sweet, Southern drawl come out of nowhere to dictate the events is startling, to say the least, and instantly takes viewers out of the intensity in which they were previously invested.

Jason Clarke as Carl Henderson and Riley Keough as Sandy Henderson in “The Devil All The Time.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

The main draw to “The Devil All the Time” is most certainly the cast, boasting a crew of Hollywood’s brightest young stars entering their prime, like Holland, Pattinson, Scanlen, Skarsgård, Stan and Keough. However, with a cast that deep and a story this sprawling, it’s hard to find enough screen time to go around. While everyone does the best with what they’re given – particularly Scanlen and Keough who are extremely limited – only Pattinson and Holland truly get to shine.

Holland holds down nearly the entirety of the film as the sullen and introspective Arvin, tortured by the demons of his past, which is a refreshing change of pace from his lighthearted and jovial turn as Marvel’s Spider-Man. Midway through the film, Holland is joined by Pattinson, who enters as Preston Teagardin, a charming yet insidious new preacher. After a charismatic introduction, the pastor’s persona takes a disturbing twist, yet Pattinson is equally magnetic as both, displaying extreme range from wholesome to manic in seconds.

Despite an impressive cast and rich, incredibly dark source material, “The Devil All the Time” is missing too many narrative pieces to create a fully compelling and captivating film. It has it’s moments and is still worth checking out if you can handle two-plus hours of tragedy, but it fails to live up to its potential.

Star Rating:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

“The Devil All The Time” is available to stream exclusively on Netflix beginning Sept. 16, 2020.

Zach Goins View All

Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.

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