Paintings, novels and sculptures are regularly referred to as art, whereas film is often called entertainment. While it’s true that film is home to a lot of disposable content, it shouldn’t be discounted just how powerful the art of filmmaking can be. A single page from a novel can use 1000 words to describe an important moment, but a single frame can convey that same important moment plus so much more. This is how we get emotionally rich and artistically layered films like the Shawshank Redemption (1994), Dead Man Walking (1995), The Green Mile (1999), Mystic River (2003), No Country for Old Men (2007) and There Will Be Blood (2007). You know immediately when you’re watching a film like this and it causes you to adjust your expectations. This means that new films like The Devil All the Time (2020) always have an incredibly high bar to clear.
After WWII, Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) has returned to Knockemstiff, Ohio and meets the love of his life, Charlotte (Haley Bennett). After experiencing some truly horrifying violence, Willard’s Christian beliefs begin to change in unimaginable ways. His teachings have deeply effected his young son Arvin (Tom Holland), who grows up to be a self-loathing reflection of his father. Arvin eventually comes to live with his Grandma and Uncle, who are also looking after the orphaned and deeply religious Lenora (Eliza Scanlen). Arvin and Lenora form a close sibling bond, which gets complicated when a shady new preacher, Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) comes to town. Meanwhile, A strange couple, Carl and Sandy Henderson (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) spend their time driving around the countryside and leave a trail of missing people behind them. Sandy’s brother, Sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) turns a blind eye to his sister’s actions, as any acknowledgment of it may get in the way of his political progression.
Even if the viewer wasn’t aware that this is based off a novel by Donald Ray Pollock, it would be pretty apparent just from the sheer number of characters and subplots. Whereas most filmmakers try to take the source novel and turn it into a film, Director Antonio Campos and co-writer Paulo Campos have tried to take cinema and turn it into the source novel. The narrative shifts its focus from one plot thread to the next, giving equal time and attention to every character and storyline. It’s uncommon for filmmakers to sacrifice cinema’s streamlined structure in favour of the omniscient perspective of a novel, but it’s an admirably brave choice. It’s arguably appropriate and has thematic purpose, as all the narrative threads want to examine belief in a higher power who can see and hear all.
The extreme third-person point of view does cause some of the more significant moments to lose their impact. The narrative takes place between 1945 to 1965, so we essentially follow the entire lives of our characters. We get to see all the most heartbreaking and shocking moments in the order they happened. This does a good job of informing us about the characters struggles and their emotional state of mind, but knowing everything all the time does rob the narrative of any intrigue it could’ve had. The audience is usually five steps ahead of the characters, so we are left waiting from them to catch up with us. This isn’t to say that a viewer should never know more than the characters, but giving the viewer omniscience doesn’t completely work in this case. This isn’t helped by Donald Ray Pollock’s narration, which often just tells us things we have already figured out.
Structural issues aside, the actual story deals with some rich and heavy ideas. As is evident from the plot synopsis, much of the narrative unpacks themes around religion, belief, fate, good and evil. What’s most fascinating is that many of the characters hold their faith very close to their heart, yet very few of them are entirely good people. It’s easy to see how The Devil All the Time could be a lightening rod for controversy, as the characters either do horrible things in the name of religion or use religion to mask their horrible actions. In the very best case scenario, the film discusses how horrible actions for the right reasons can earn the right to be forgiven. It’s a provocative theme which is worth discussing. The film makes a game effort, but it doesn’t entirely discuss this as deeply or as delicately as it should.
Despite all the violence, the film is ultimately trying to be about kindness. To be clear, not every film needs to be all sunshine and rainbows. As an example, No Country for Old Men is almost completely devoid of any joy by the time the credits roll. It is a gradually nihilistic experience which leaves you thinking very deeply about the state of things. Regardless, it’s all about what the story is trying to communicate and how it communicates it. In the case of No Country for Old Men, there’s a very deliberate and thematically purposeful decline into cynicism. In The Devil All the Time, the intent is to leave us with a sense of hope despite all the horror. Its perfectly possible to tell a depressingly dark story that still leaves the audience hopeful. While Campos doesn’t ignore these hopeful moments and they still function as pieces of the narrative, they aren’t as emotionally affecting as the many acts of violence.
Even though it falls slightly short in its storytelling, The Devil All the Time is close to perfection in terms of cinematic craft. From Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Eliza Scanlen, Haley Bennett, Mia Wasikowska and Harry Melling, there isn’t a single weak link in the cast. You really believe that every single one of these people is from this small town and you get a real sense of how they feel about each other. The cinematography by Lol Crawley is both visceral and bleakly beautiful. The 1940s and 1960s of Knockemstiff, Ohio is so effortlessly recreated that you feel like you’ve been taken back in time. The level of craftsmanship on display comes close to elevating the entire film to the artistic heights it wants to reach.
It’s easy to call The Devil All the Time a great film purely based on the heavy subject matter and the serious dramatic tone in which it presents itself. However, having grand ideas on your mind and beautiful presentation isn’t an automatic key to cinematic greatness. It all comes down to how well it actually achieves its goals. To be clear, The Devil All the Time is not a bad film. Even though it never becomes the sum of its parts, it’s well shot, well acted, well directed and does its best to deal with complex ideas.
Best way to watch it: While cuddling your dog. You’re going to need the hugs.