Why did I agree to watch “The Devil All the Time” without even reading the synopsis? Maybe I just wanted to see why everyone has become so obsessed with Robert Pattinson. Or maybe, after watching all of “The Great British Bake Off” and resorting to a Spanish "Downton Abbey" knock-off for entertainment, I was willing to try whatever Netflix recommended (and yes, I will be watching “Enola Holmes.”) “The Devil All the Time” stood out to me because of its ensemble cast and thriller appeal.
Yet, against all odds, “The Devil All the Time” bored me. There’s plenty of misery to stew in throughout the movie’s 138-minute runtime, but the intrigue wears off quickly, leaving a dry well of trauma and gore. Reminiscent of “The Crucible” in its examination of religion and the dark underside of small-town American, “The Devil All the Time” follows the abusive and abused residents of Knockemstiff, Ohio over the span of two decades.
Described in the media as “Southern gothic” — that’s a genre of literature, by the way, not a description of any particular university — the movie, directed by Antonio Campos, is based on the novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock. Pollock narrates the film with quotes from the book, which is a pretty solid indication that the story was better off in its original format. Nevertheless, the film shows no hesitation in visualizing heinous actions.
The movie begins with Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), a pious soldier suffering from PTSD after fighting in the Pacific theater of World War II. Through flashback, we relive one of Willard’s most haunting memories: a bloody man, barely alive, nailed to a cross on the battlefield, with flies buzzing and crawling over his ravaged body. Willard shoots him in a coup de grace. It’s a brutal image that the following scenes never quite justify.
The rest of the movie centers on Willard’s guarded and hollow-cheeked son Arvin, played by Tom Holland. Other characters, from a corrupt sheriff to a salacious Bonnie-and-Clyde-like couple, populate the town of Knockemstiff. Unfortunately, the story boxes them all into poorly developed personas whose relevance is solely defined by their connection to Arvin’s story. Each makes Arvin’s life as destitute and miserable as possible, with little time given to any to develop any real purpose or flavor beyond so.
“The Devil All the Time” will certainly disturb some viewers with its graphic content and violent depictions of evil. However, the thriller is too ambitious in scope to successfully deliver a cohesive, tight story — there’s hardly a moment of relief in the hurricane of atrocity. Jumping from character to character while trying to convince us that these storylines are inextricably connected, the movie quickly devolves into an incoherent and unfeeling parade of misery.
The performances are solid: Tom Holland, unsurprisingly, plays boyish American underdogs quite well, and Robert Pattinson catches the eye as the lecherous new preacher in town. I will admit: Pattinson’s ridiculous accent, á la Daniel Craig in “Knives Out,” incited most of my interest in his character. In fact, the audience’s investment in these characters is carried by the charisma of the actors. The characters themselves are so tedious that, by the end, you’re glad to see them go.
“The Devil All the Time” tells a 20th-century story, but it feels even more dated and anachronous because of the conspicuous lack of, well, non-white folks. Granted, it is set in the backwoods of Ohio, but I have to question who this movie was made for. At the very least, “The Devil All the Time” seems stuck in decades past, oblivious to today’s zeitgeist. Some might enjoy “The Devil All the Time” for its gothic American sensibilities and polished visuals — but for the love of God, just make sure you know what you’re getting into.