The Devil All the Time has a bleakness worthy of 2020. Indeed, every moment of the film is soaked in such dour pessimism, one could argue it’s sole purpose is to depress. Narrative momentum is secondary to atmosphere, and Antonio Campos’ concoction (based on Donald Ray Pollock’s novel of the same name) envisions itself as part fable, part mood piece.
That can of course work when good writing, directing and performances coalesce. The works of Cormac McCarthy (something this film resembles starkly) often translate well onto the big screen as stories of pure atmosphere. No Country for Old Men takes an ensemble of characters and subjects them to a never ending misery before letting their audience take a breath. The Devil All the Time clearly taking a note out of that playbook.
There is some sort of narrative amongst the gruesome deaths and angsty smoulders. Revolving around Tom Holland’s Arvin Russell, the meat of the story involves working out character relations and showing their interplay as they work towards their (usually) bloody end.
Does it work? Sort of. Odds are, Netflix have lured you to watch the film based on the talents of its cast. Blockbuster mainstays Holland, Sebastian Stan and Robert Pattinson clearly see this project as an excuse to deliver a ridiculously hammed up southern drawl. This is somewhat of a trend in Hollywood these days; Daniel Craig’s Knives Out turn is arguably the most significant recent example. They do a fine job, despite the obvious vanity behind every line. Pattinson is clearly having the time of his life as a lecherous “preacher”, a running trend after his equally chaotic turn in last year’s The Lighthouse.
Yet the performances aren’t quite enough to mask the structural flaws inherent in the script. It’s a complex narrative from the get go, utilising an endless amount of narration to establish place and character. The narrator is one of Hollywood’s oldest dilemmas. As a stylistic device, it can work wonders. Goodfellas would be nothing without Henry Hill’s narrative voice. But where The Devil All the Time‘s narration falls flat is through how essential it is to the very structural integrity of the film. Without it, the story would be impossible to follow. Screenwriters Antonio and Paulo Campos clearly struggled to translate page to screen, and seemingly compromised by copying certain passages into the script. It begs the question: why adapt a film into a series of passages from the book interspersed with dialogue?
Further to this, the movie seems to equate darkness with quality. Characters spew monologues on the hopelessness of life and the meaning of religion. At 2 hours 15 minutes, it can be exhausting following such morose individuals. That’s not to say that some of the twists and turns aren’t exciting or interesting, but bursts of narrative energy are then interrupted by dour musings.
It’s very possible to come away from The Devil All the Time having enjoyed the experience. It has a fun soapy quality in its analysis of southern American life. But too often it rests on an exaggerated bleakness that stymies much of the momentum. Added to a structure that may suit a miniseries more than a single film, it begins to fall apart upon any sort of analysis. It may want to be treated as a thoughtful mood piece, but come for the performances, and enjoy it for its surface value.