The Devil All the Time
A dark film with deft criticism of religion is hindered by its sprawling story
Netflix seems to become bolder as the years go by in greenlighting its films. With the touchy subject of religion, Netflix was already consumed in a controversy with the Brazilian satirical take on a gay Jesus with The First Temptation of the Christ (2019). The Devil All The Time (2020) is extremely different from The First Temptation, adapted from the dark and somber novel by Donald Ray Pollock; however, both films share a similarity in being bold with their explorations of religion.
The Devil All the Time follows various parallel stories in 1950s and 1960s America. The narrative shuffles between two small towns in Ohio and West Virginia. We mainly follow the story of Arvin, from an orphaned boy (Michael Banks Repeta) sent to live with his grandmother (Kristin Griffith), to an older skeptical young man (Tom Holland). The film weaves a number of character arcs between each other, from that of Arvin’s pious stepsister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), to a dirty sheriff (Sebastian Stan), to a serial killer couple (Jason Clarke, Riley Keough).
The common thread in both the novel and the film is that of the disillusionment with Christianity and religion at large. The title itself is a clear reference to a certain absence of good and a constant presence of cruelty. This lends the film an incredibly dark tone that carries throughout and may easily depress most viewers. However, in this dark tone writer-director Antonio Campos relishes in tearing down the ideal view of organized religion and faith in a way that would make Karl Marx proud. Certainly, Marx’s famous definition of religion being “the opium of the people” seems to be a motto for The Devil All the Time. We are frequently shown how the blind and innocent following of the Bible leads our characters to terrible fates, while those skeptic believers are able to survive longer. Curiously, Campos isn’t directly blaming religion with dialogue, rather he uses Ray Pollock’s prose (the author is also the film’s narrator) that carries a tone of piousness so that the film becomes semi-satirical in contrast with the more brutal scenes.
Campos has become adept at carrying out a balanced darkness in his films, his previous production of Christine (2016) was able to dive into the protagonist’s depression and see how she slowly unraveled to follow through with her suicide. With The Devil All the Time, Campos achieves a similar balance of darkness, allowing it to not be overwhelming so viewers can follow the characters. However, unlike Christine, Campos has too sprawling a narrative to delve into the character psychologies. This forces much of the film to seem like its summing up events instead of taking its time and chewing the scenery. Certain key turns and relationships are defined in a scene transition robbing certain characters of needed depth.
However, Campos has been blessed with one of the best casts of the year. Holland is marvelous in the lead role and seems to be the one that shines most. Holland is able to bring about a rather restrained and delicate performance that helps ground viewers in the pent-up pain and emotions that Arvin is suffering. There were equally great performances in small doses from Scanlen as well as the supporting players of Keough, Bill Skarsgård as Arvin’s father and Robert Pattinson (a bit over the top) as a new preacher. This stellar cast is able to somewhat liven the short runtime their characters are given, and thus give a bit more depth and meaning to the story.
In the end, The Devil All the Time is a rather bold film in criticizing Christianity and its effect on blind believers. The stellar cast is able to bring about fun engagement with the narrative, as is the dark tonal balance that Campos achieves. However, the film might feel like it has too much to tell in too little time, leaving some arcs to feel picaresque instead of part of a larger whole. This forces the watering down of certain character arcs, so that some of character fates are not felt as emotionally as they could have been, leaving viewers slightly cold as to the outcome of the story.