‘The Devil All the Time’ entertains despite its sins

“The Devil All the Time” is bad. But boy, is it the best kind of bad!

Worse than a bad movie, in my opinion, is a forgettable one. You know the kind I’m talking about — those movies that exit your brain the second the credits have rolled, the kind you see on cable a year or two later and realize halfway through that you’ve seen it before. 

But “The Devil All the Time” is different. It is memorably bad, a movie that dares to leave an impression, no matter how foul the stench may be. 

Alright, I’m exaggerating. I mean, with a cast like that, how bad could it be? Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Mia Wasikowska, Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen — I’m out of breath! And that Netflix money, come on. Surely a film of this stature isn’t without some merit.

And you would be right. “The Devil All the Time” has production value for days. It’s perfectly paced, and its menagerie of A-list actors are all charismatic as hell. (Does that count as a pun?) But it’s no “Mudbound,” or even “Lawless.” It’s two hours and 18 minutes of hollow hand wringing, a nihilistic movie about the cycle of violence that is but itself another stop in Hollywood’s cycle of multigenerational melodramas. 

At least it’s entertaining! You’ll never be bored — that’s a Scene guarantee. “The Devil All the Time” is the kind of movie where the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen, at any given moment, is exactly what occurs. I was giggling by the end of it; I couldn’t help myself. The whole affair is so brooding, so grisly and so mean that laughter becomes a coping mechanism.

The film follows an ensemble cast of characters in southern Ohio and northern West Virginia whose lives crisscross between the end of WWII and the start of the Vietnam. On one path, you have Arvin (Holland), a young man who spars with a corrupt new preacher (Pattinson). On another is his father, Willard (Skarsgård), who returns from the South Pacific with a heavy cross to bear, and who turns to the Cross itself for comfort. And the third is Carl and Sandy Penderson (Clarke and Keough), a deranged, serial killer couple whose pulpy side story is ripped from the pages of what feels like a different kind of novel. Speaking of books, the film is narrated by Donald Ray Pollock, the author of the 2011 bestseller on which the movie is based.

Again, the cast is stacked, and they do good work in spite of the offensively underwritten female characters. But for a movie about the American South, it’s a little distracting how few of them are actually American — and that’s just the tip of the miscasting iceberg. Well below the water lurks Robert Pattinson, whose sing-song Southern twang has been much maligned on Twitter, especially once it was revealed he refused to work with a dialect coach. Say what you will, but I couldn’t look away!

Combine that cast with cinematographer Lol Crawley’s 35mm film, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ creaking score and authentic costume and production design, and you’ve got the fittings of an Oscar contender. But the heart of “The Devil All the Time” is pitch black, and not in an insightful or illuminating way. Director Antonio Campos (“Christine”) ruminates on Christian dogma, free will and the legacy of violence, but to what end? For what purpose? I agree, bad things are bad — but “The Devil All the Time” is among them. 4/10

This review was originally published on September 22, 2020 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.


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