The Devil All the Time

Haunted by the increasingly crazed sacrifices his dad Willard (Bill Skarsgård, "It") performed to deliver his mom (Haley Bennett, "Swallow") from cancer which mirror his mercy killing of a horrifically crucified marine in the Pacific during WWII, orphaned Arvin Russell (Tom Holland, Michael Banks Repeta at 9) is raised by his grandmother Emma (Kristin Griffith) in Coal Creek, West Virginia.  She’s still in thrall to the Church whose former preacher Roy Laferty (Harry Melling, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs") fled, leaving his baby daughter Lenora (Eliza Scanlen, "Little Women") in her care and the arrival of the new pastor, Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), will prove that the more things change the more they stay the same in “The Devil All the Time.”

Laura's Review: B-

Cowriter (with brother Paulo)/director Antonio Campos’s adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s novel is such an over the top piece of southern fried Gothic it is difficult to tell whether he intended his faithful retelling as drama or black comedy.  This is a problem of tone and perhaps overreach that Campos never gets his arms around despite the richness of talent on hand in his vast ensemble cast.  Campos successfully weaves backwards and forwards in time to tell his sprawling, multi-generational tale, but many of the characters here are underwritten, their motivations mysterious.

Take Sandy Henderson (Riley Keough) for example.  She’s the sister of corrupt sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) and the wife of serial killer Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke), an amateur photographer who uses his wife as bait to draw in hitchhikers for kinky photos before murdering them.  But while Sandy seems willing to engage in kinky sex with strangers while Carl shoots, his actual shooting of them doesn’t appear to go over as well.  Later, a montage of Carl’s photo negatives will luridly suggest otherwise, only to have events reverse our opinion again.

Another short shrifted personality is Helen Hatton (Mia Wasikowska), the woman Emma promised God she’d marry off to Willard if he returned from the war, only to learn of his intent to marry the waitress he’d met on his way home.  None the wiser, Helen has her head turned by Roy, gives birth to Lenora, then disappears under horrific circumstances given little foundation.  The Russell family’s staunch faith will also bring harm to her daughter, despite Arvin’s best efforts.  Faith, too will cause Emma’s humiliation at the hands of Teagardin, who calls out her poverty to justify his own interests.

If the women of “The Devil All the Time” are all badly mistreated in the source material, Campos does little to flesh them out for us, instead focusing on how events shape Arvin.  Skarsgård lays the groundwork as a Russell trying to buck convention, only to succumb in grief.  Holland picks up the generational baton with broader conviction to protect those bullied and preyed upon by the corrupt and evil denizens of Knockemstiff, Ohio and his home town.  Clarke is fine in a role that requires little shading.  Pattinson adds to his roster of oddballs, chewing the chicken fat with gusto.  The film also stars singer/songwriter Pokey LaFarge as Roy’s brother Theodore.

Campos has a feel for time and place, his production transporting us into an environment where we can believe in all this evil.  What he hasn’t done is give us a reason for indulging in it for almost two and a half hours.  “The Devil All the Time” works in fits and starts, its parade of talent noteworthy, but eventually this adaptation’s all devil all the time proves wearying.

Robin's Review: B-

"The Devil All the Time" is currently in theaters and will debut on Netflix on 9/16/2020.