The Devil All The Time has the subtlety of a jackhammer raising hell in the morning. The new Netflix hit from director Antonio Campos is a period piece set in West Virginia. It’s more of a horror movie than a drama with the misery cranked up to 11. Despite a wildly talented filmmaker and cast, led by Tom Holland (known for Spider-Man), Campos’ film is more frustrating than engaging.
It’s a sprawling story covering two generations, like a lesser version of The Place Beyond the Pines. Set in the 1950s and 1960s, the adaptation follows characters with the worse luck imaginable. It’s a story about survival, good and evil. Holland, who’s never quite convincing as a chain smoking West Virginia kid, is Arvin Eugune Russell.
Russell lives a life of tragedy, as do most characters in the movie, such as his father (played by Bill Skarsgard), his mother (Haley Bennet), and sister (Eliza Scanlen). It’s a story of misery with fleeting moments of kindness. While probably true to the intensity of the times and location, The Devil All The Times sometimes plays as cold and distant misery porn. For the most part, that’s because there’s an overwhelming sense of artifice throughout the immaculately crafted drama.
We can feel the strings in most scenes, most performances, and especially, a pandering narration (delivered by the author of the material). More than once, a scene is ruined by the well-spoken narration, explaining exactly what we’re seeing. It’s surprising coming from Campos, who usually lets his intense images do all the talking. With the narration, there’s no mystery or ambiguity about the character or the film. Worst of all, the narration — which is obviously going for poetry — mostly reminds us we’re watching a movie with actors playing dress up.
There’s a long list of great actors in the movie, including Jason Clarke as a killer and, playing a preacher, Robert Pattinson. Despite the ensemble giving every scene their all, there’s too little about these characters to make them pop or stay in our memory. A movie with such intense pain and trauma shouldn’t leave behind a mood of indifference. The Devil All The Time provokes reactions at times, but mostly as shock value.
There’s unflinching violence and horrible acts committed in the story, but these moments should all sting deeper. Considering the stacked cast and a filmmaker as talented as Campos, it’s disappointing The Devil All The Time’s brutality doesn’t rise much above shock value. With well over two hours of time to tell a story, this world should feel more dramatic.
What’s strange about the lack of a profound or enticing effect is — Campos takes his time with this story. He lets the scenes, images, and moments build and burn. As a piece of craftsmanship, the Netflix film is nothing to knock. With the narration, yes, it’s overdone as a whole, but the cinematography, camera placement, costumes, and set designs — it’s all terrific work. It’s no small period piece, either. It’s an epic film with impressive sights, but those sights never stir up enough emotion and power.
The Devil All The Time doesn’t suffer from a lack of ambition or talent. It’s the kind of movie we sadly rarely see in theaters anymore.
There’s plenty to appreciate about what’s on-screen in the Netflix picture, but not much to chew on and contemplate. A movie that portrays such evils should have more substance to offer the audience. The fact that The Devil All The Time is pitch dark isn’t the problem; the problem is what little it has to say about the darkness in all of us.
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