Co-written by Paulo Campos (based on book by Donald Ray Pollock)
Starring Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson and Jason Clarke
‘A Gripping Southern Gothic’
Religious violence is a sensitive topic that is rarely depicted in films. Hollywood has long shied away from the stories of Christian preachers that commit acts of violence. It is not easy to create an effective depiction of religious fanaticism on the big-screen. It’s a demanding task that often requires filmmakers to confront controversial subject matter. Then, there’s the challenge of attracting interested audiences. Due to their disturbing themes, these movies do not appeal towards everyone. After all, most viewers want to be entertained rather than lectured on religion. Consequently, it is rare to come across realistic depictions of religious faith on the big-screen.
In this regard, Antonio Campos’ latest film “The Devil All the Time” is a bold achievement. An ambitious, gripping and sprawling epic, it offers a fascinating look at religious fanaticism. With his fifth feature, writer/director Antonio Campos has crafted an admirable adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s famous novel. Packed with atmospheric cinematography, engrossing storytelling and spectacular performances, it is an effective adaptation. Although “The Devil All the Time” is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. It is unevenly paced, and lacks the compelling character development of its source material. Nonetheless, it offers taut entertainment that will satisfy fans of psychological thrillers.
Set in post-WWII Southern Ohio, “The Devil All the Time” follows multiple generations whose lives are interconnected by tragedy. Tom Holland stars in the leading role as Arvin Russell, an angst-ridden teenager that is coping with a tragic loss. Having lost both his parents at a young age, Arvin strives to protect his loved ones from corruption in the town. However, his life forever changes when he crosses paths with a detestable priest, power-hungry sheriff and pair of serial killers. As Arvin discovers depravity, he seeks redemption in his sinful town.
Writer/director Antonio Campos is a newcomer to Southern gothic adaptations. Campos is an American filmmaker that is best known for his intense psychological dramas (ex. 2008’s “Afterschool”). “The Devil All the Time”, however, marks his first literary adaptation and foray into the world of religious fanatics. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to adapt a renowned piece of Southern literature to the big-screen, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using spellbinding cinematography, Campos draws viewers into the world of a tormented teenager that is battling corrupt citizens in his town. From intimate close-ups to extraordinary establishing shots, the cinematography keeps viewers immersed in the film’s small-town setting. It gives the movie an ominous and foreboding atmosphere. Working alongside cinematographer Lol Crawley, Campos creates a captivating film in which each frame is breathtaking to behold. Campos excels at immersing viewers into a cursed town, and his latest feature is worth watching on Netflix for this reason alone.
If stories of religious fanaticism do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to watch “The Devil All the Time”. The film is extremely well-written, and offers an intriguing look at the relationship between Christian faith and violence. Campos’ greatest strength as a screenwriter is his ability to use voice-over narration to place viewers into the characters’ mindsets. When adapting complex books to the big-screen, screenwriters tend to avoid taking risks and stick overly close to the source material. This often leaves no room for surprises and detracts from the quality of the cinematic experience. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with “The Devil All the Time”. The film effectively employs voice-over narration by the author of the book Donald Ray Pollock. Like reading a bedtime story, Pollock uses his authoritative voice to narrate the book directly to the audience. Voice-over narration is a tricky narrative technique to employ in a book adaptation. When used inappropriately, it can often become an unnecessary distraction and affect the viewer’s engagement. However, it works tremendously in this movie. Using a phenomenal screenplay, Campos keeps viewers absorbed in a nihilistic world.
It is hard to not appreciate the astonishing performances from the cast. In an award-worthy ensemble, every star gets their chance to shine.
Tom Holland delivers his finest performance to date as Arvin Russell. Holland is best known for playing the lighthearted superhero Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With “The Devil All the Time”, however, he takes on his most dramatic role to date. It is not easy to get into the mindset of a grief-stricken teenager that is coping with traumatic loss. However, Holland pulls it off effortlessly. With mesmerizing expressions, he conveys the angst, courage and heroism of an adolescent that seeks justice in a disgraceful town. It’s a powerful performance from one of the most talented young actors working today.
The supporting cast is spectacular and also worthy of recognition. Robert Pattinson is remarkable and steals nearly every scene he is in as a pedophile preacher that abuses innocent women. Jason Clarke and Riley Keough are perfectly cast and bring nerve-wracking tension to the movie as a pair of serial killers. And finally, it is hard to not mention Bill Skarsgård. As Arvin’s father, he brings humanity to the movie.
Despite its superb performances, however, it’s unfortunate that “The Devil All the Time” isn’t quite successful all the time. If there’s one area where the film falters, it is in the pacing department. Campos’ decision to tell the interweaving stories in a non-linear structure is bold and innovative, but it doesn’t entirely pay off. It drags down the pacing and detracts from the entertainment-value of the movie. Due to this faulty approach, the interconnected stories aren’t always as engaging as the central narrative. Moreover, the film suffers from a lack of compelling character development. All of the characters are reprehensible humans that exhibit little redeeming qualities. For instance, we’re barely given strong reasons to care about Arvin beyond his orphaned upbringing. It is difficult to connect with certain characters when they are hardly given a shred of humanity. Literary adaptations thrive based on the likeable personas of their characters, and in this regard “The Devil All the Time” falls short of expectations.
On a final note, it is worth bearing in mind that “The Devil All the Time” is not meant for everyone. Given its provocative themes, the movie may not please everyone. The film tackles controversial topics such as fanaticism, rape and suicide that may upset certain viewers. Viewers that are sensitive towards harsh depictions of Christian faith will not enjoy this movie. In light of its anti-religion message, “The Devil All the Time” is one of those movies that may not appeal towards mainstream audiences.
In the end, “The Devil All the Time” is a satisfactory psychological thriller with ambitions that often exceed its grasp. An entertaining but overstuffed adaptation, it sheds light on provocative issues that are rarely seen in movies today. At a time when religious fanaticism is rarely depicted in Cinema, it offers a cautionary reminder of the dangers posed when faith motivates mentally unstable men to commit acts of violence.