The Devil All the Time

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Tom Holland in The Devil All the Time.
Tom Holland in The Devil All the Time.
Photo: Glen Wilson/Netflix


4/5 Stars


The Devil All the Time is a multi-stranded story of two serial killer lovers, a very questionable priest, a pair of orphans and a compromised sheriff who make their way through life in a backwater town in post-war America. 


Maybe it's that the unspeakably depressing I Know This Much Is True has desensitised me to stories that deal with the darker side of humanity, but I was surprised at just how absorbed I was by the pretty messed-up The Devil All the Time. "Enjoy" is probably a strong term to describe what it feel like to watch a film that centres on bad religion, bad people, and really, really bad violence. But there is undoubtedly something powerfully magnetic about this Southern Gothic tale that makes it absorbing, rather than unbearable.

Directed by indie filmmaker, Antonio Campos, who also co-writes the script with his brother, Paulo, adapting the acclaimed 2011 novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time (taken from a line in the novel: "Fighting the devil all the time") is a film all about death and God and the way the two play against each other when either or both are perverted. This may basically just be a "fire and brimstone" sermon taken to its natural conclusion, but there is something perversely captivating about a film this ruthlessly (but often discreetly) violent being this unabashedly Christian. It's like Dogma without the jokes but with better filmmaking. 

The title says it all in this case but The Devil All the Time is steeped in religious imagery and religious language to the point that it outstrips even the most unashamedly proselyting "faith film" in its Christian messaging. Not that it is in any way, shape or form a "faith film" in the traditional sense – if nothing else it seems pretty agnostic about religion and God, in general – but it absolutely is a tale of divine retribution repackaged into a post-war morality tale. 

Even out grotesque serial-killer lovers (a beautifully subtle Riley Keough and, out-creeping the devil himself, a rather less-than subtle Jason Clarke), coat their crimes in religious terms, while the only scenes more disturbing than the brief glimpses of the pair's crimes are those of devout but broken people desperately beseeching God for help to (seeming) deafening silence. It's a film about bad religion and whether it's coming from the Campos brothers or Pollock's novel, there's almost as much disdain for naive "God as Santa Clause" religion as there is for monsters using God as an excuse for their ghastly crimes.

Further cementing the feel of this all being something of a fable (parable? - I can never remember which is which) is the narration, which is supplied by Pollock himself. Mind you, the narration sometimes reminds me just a bit too much of a Coen brothers movie for some reason – and all due respect to Campos, I can only imagine what the Coens would do with this story – so it often feels like the film is lighter and more comedic than it is, but in this case that might not be a bad thing.

The tone of the Devil All the Time is actually one of its most intriguing features. Unlike the aforementioned I Know This Much Is True, this truly dark and twisted tale never leans into that sort of dour dreariness, opting instead for atmospheric, slightly deranged neo-noir. It's slow but if feels deliberate, rather than boring or dragged out – even at 138 minutes. As for its violence, it has flashes of some truly disturbing bloodletting but by keeping these to quick flashes rather than lingering on them, it feels both less exploitative and, weirdly, even more disturbing as Campos allows you to fill in the blanks with your own mind. Even snapshots of a near-naked Riley Keough can's distract from the carnage surrounding her.

Admittedly, this intriguing balancing act occasionally works to the film's detriment. It's blackly comedic but never actually funny; it's pulpy but not pulpy enough; it's very slightly otherworldly but just a bit too restrained to really cash in on its atmospheric settings. This makes for something that is a bit straighter and flatter than the Southern Gothic genre usually calls for, with the failure for the dark comedy to land being particularly problematic. It didn't need to be Airplane or even Thor Ragnorok, obviously, but when you have Robert Pattinson in deliciously evil form as an unholy minister, a greater willingness to sometimes embrace that same gonzo-comic atmosphere would have only improved an already very good film.

There's no need for such equivocations when it comes to the cast, though. The film plays as a showcase for a dozen or so young actors to show their range – especially for those who are in danger of being typecast by their roles in major franchises. After all, looking through the cast list, you find a Spider-Man, a twinkly vampire, a malevolent demon that sometimes takes the form of a clown, and a Winter Soldier. 

There are also indie darlings – all female – like Keough, Haley Bennett and Mia Wasikowska (though she's of Alice of Wonderland fame), but aside from Jason Clarke who really just plays creepy, the entire cast delivers one exceptional performance after another. Tom Holland especially impresses as a young man haunted by his past and barrelling head-first into possible tragedy. It's also interesting that Pattinson has already spent so much time expunging the persona of Edward Cullen that he has little issue hamming it up as a key but very two-dimensional player in the film.   

The Devil All the Time has received mixed reviews and it's certainly not without its flaws, but it stands out as one of Netflix’s most artistically assured and most successful original films. It's just clearly not for everyone.


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