The Devil All The Time Oozes Talent but Lacks Soul
Director: Antonio Campos Starring: Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Sebastian Stan, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, Bill Skarsgård Running Time: 138 minutes
Based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock, director Antonio Campos brings together an impressive ensemble cast to tell a story of intergenerational turmoil and malevolent superstition, set against the beautiful backdrop of Coal Creek, West Virginia.
We are introduced to U.S Marine Willard Russell, fresh off serving in the tail end of World War 2. Russell is played by Bill Skarsgard, and his widely brooding eyes still give us the chills (or laughs perhaps) when casting our minds back to his breakthrough role of Pennywise the Clown. Having witnessed unspeakably harrowing violence in the Solomon Islands, Russell is clearly psychologically tortured but equally steadfast in his determination to put his past behind him and attempt to regain even a semblance of small town normality. On the way home, the now war veteran meets a charming waitress Charlotte, and thus begins a marriage that brings us our main character, Arvin. Played by Tom Holland in a potential career best performance, Arvin inherits both lifelong lessons and inner turmoil from his father, and we shift over a decade forward where the focus turns to Arvin, and his strained but loyal relationships that are equally shaped by events we see in the first third. These relationships, and the environment in which they are placed, are constantly underpinned by dangerous superstition and blind faith, often portrayed cynically through numerous acts of wretched hypocrisy that we see ecclesiastical leaders engage in. Interesting characters include Roy (Harry Melling or Dudley from Harry Potter) the charismatic but delusional preacher, and volatile couple Carl and Sandy who opportunistically pick up hitchhikers for nefarious reasons that are best left to discovery on first viewing. There are a lot of characters here, and all fairly engaging, but the admittedly robust array of performances that flesh out supporting characters are slightly compensating for a level of narrative strength that in reality just falls short. Being an ensemble cast, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s a sense of reliance on the star power on screen, bolstered by a formidable trio of Skarsgard, Holland, and eventually Robert Pattinson.
Pattinson’s introduction marks the beginning of the second act, and events that were set in motion in the early stages are slowly but surely teased out and linked together. Pattinson, playing the eerily creepy Reverend Preston Teagardin, gives what is now a typically convincing performance. Teagardin, through his inescapable charisma, manages to garner the affections of Arvin’s stepsister Lenora, and as things go South, Arvin begins to connect the dots that paint an increasingly ugly picture of the sinister events that have been unfolding under everyone’s nose.
The astute casting choice in The Devil All The Time is rewarded with stellar performances in return. It feels like Skarsgard, Holland, and Pattinson all find themselves at a pivotal point in their careers. Skarsgard likely feels a need to re or de-brand himself from the killer clown persona that has typified him in recent years. Holland has been a part of unprecedented commercial success with the Marvel franchise as Spiderman, but probably feels like he needs to now focus on the critical acclaim side of things to show off his acting chops. Pattinson, by far the most accomplished, is on a current trend to reinvent himself after the Twilight series that propelled him to international stardom. The roles for each of these actors here won’t make much of a fuss when it comes to awards season, but it’s undoubtedly a step in the right direction for all three. All three are impressively immersed in their roles, and the homework shows. However, the highest praise should be reserved for Tom Holland. He above all seems to emotionally connect with the conflicted character of Arvin, and more than plays his part in the messy portrayal of masculinity that is well complemented by a solid set up delivered by Skarsgard’s Russell as Arvin’s troubled father. Masculinity is a pervasive theme here, and this is somewhat a disappointment, insofar as it obstructs the potential for numerous female characters to steal a show that they otherwise could have stolen. Riley Keogh and Eliza Scanlen are more than capable of carrying the load, and do so on occasion, but the limitations and constraints of the source material mean that the focus is very much on the male dominated themes, meaning that most of the female characters are effectively objects, either of male desire, or male resentment.
It’s also worth mentioning that every scene that takes place is shot beautifully, and young cinematographer Lol Crawley certainly showcases his shooting skill in a manner that will surely lead to bigger and better things. While it’s not entirely clear whether a narration is needed, it’s nonetheless a superb touch that the author of the original novel, Donald Ray Pollock, is the one to fill in the gaps of exposition that do help make things clearer for those who haven’t spent any time with the literary source material.
For the performances, it’s probably worth a watch. It certainly won’t do much to lift the gloom of 2020, but it’s stellar cast likely takes this story as far as it can go on screen. Ultimately, it does still remain in cinematic purgatory for now.(3 / 5)