Directed by Antonio Campos, Netflix’s The Devil All the Time is an example of creator as a callous God. Whether you want to point the finger at the book’s author or the screenwriter or Campos himself, it’s a film that feels like it was created by someone regarding humanity as a boy regards ornery fire ants. With a sprawling ensemble, and without much time to get to know each character outside of Tom Holland’s Arvin Russell, they come across as mere pawns in a narrative form of vengeful karma. They’re subject to all manner of melodramatic trauma raining down upon them, and us, at record speeds. Grappling with such heady themes as generational trauma and the consequences of religious extremism, indelicate writing and algorithm-mandated twists ensure Campos is unable to meaningfully convey such ideas beyond soap opera tricks and tropes.
The world here is an absurdly mean, nasty, and unforgiving place. I take issue not with such a point of view, but with the film’s simplistic evocation of it, of a single small town in Ohio (and a region of West Virginia just over yonder) populated with serial killers and serial rapists and organized crime and TWO INSTANCES of sacrificial murder at the feet of Christian fundamentalism. Some might say that realism and authenticity do not matter in the realm of southern gothic noir, a genre of which The Devil All the Time clearly wishes to be an example. The problem is Campos does not consistently succeed in evoking the campier, frothier elements of southern gothic noir, except perhaps in the performative choices of one Robert Pattinson. Sporting a curly, surly, whiny twang of an accent, his pedophilic preacher is a character so charismatically ridiculous, so riveting in his sweaty bellowing, that he makes you smile even as you find yourself repelled by him and eventually compelled to see him get his comeuppance.
Alongside Pattinson, Tom Holland saves the film from completely eschewing subtlety or an interesting point of view, or wild entertainment in the case of the former. Dragging on a Marlboro and regarding the world with a stubborn, skeptical gaze he can’t shake, he undoubtedly proves he’s got more in the tank than a wise-cracking Peter Parker. His Arvin is a child of violence. His youth and future were forged through tragedy, through the hand-me-down virtues and awful lot in life of generations past. His father (Bill Skarsgard) was scarred by World War II and came home with enough pent-up hostility to beat two men half to death, which he does in front of young Arvin on a hot afternoon before they skip and hop down town to enjoy ice cream together. These lessons and the ensuing hardship their family endures leave a lasting impression on him, and through them lives a young man with enough pent-up hostility and anguish to affect violence (albeit mostly just) and retribution upon the corrupt denizens of Knockemstiff, Ohio.
Likewise does his adopted sister (Eliza Scanlon) meet a fate not dissimilar from that of the mother she never knew (Mia Wasikowska), a woman who, like her, was unfortunately drawn in by the wiles of an unscrupulous local pastor. The women here are all the victims of men in one way or another. Riley Keough appears as a town hooker with a husband (Jason Clarke) who gets off on a peculiar set of photographic circumstances. She’s merely a lady who likes cavorting with many types of men, who enjoys the adventure of a new face in a new place, but she’s chained to a personality with far more sinister intentions. Her subplot, which eventually meets up with another story involving a crooked sheriff (Sebastian Stan), feels somewhat disconnected from Arvin’s story of family legacy. The Devil All the Time is a story about a time and place, only without the proper scope and atmospheric rigor to envelope its audience in that time and place. And as southern gothic noir, it’s simply too mean to fully succeed.