REEL Review – The Devil All The Time (2020)

Director: Antonio Campos | 2h 18mins | Crime, Drama

A number of people between Ohio and West Virginia connect through acts of violence and religion. At the centre of it is Arvin Russell (Tom Holland), who just wants to protect those closest to him.

Campos’ newest Netflix feature is an uncomfortably dark film. It’s vignetted with numerous characters, struggling with violence in their own ways in the heartland of Ohio and West Virginia. While full of fantastic performances and some harrowing imagery, the problem with The Devil All The Time is that it struggles to find consistency while deciding whether it’s a series of vignettes, or a story of colliding individuals.

The film begins with a Sam Elliott-esque narration as he introduces us to the prologue of sorts, and to Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgaard), a soldier returning home from the War. He stops in a small diner before going home to his parents and ends up meeting the woman he wants to marry, despite his Mother’s insistence on him meeting a girl from Church. They move into together in a small house next to the woods, and have a son named Arvin, who becomes the main protagonist (of sorts) for the rest of the film. The end of Arvin’s childhood is one of desperate sacrifice and sadness, and without spoiling anything, let’s just say it sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Campos could have laid it out in a simple fashion, showing the violence with no real damnation, but he’s much more attentive to cause and effect.

The opening narration and foggy setting make this feel more like a fable, a story of morality and the extremities of American religion, how people’s choices and dedication lead down a path of violence and horror. Campos could have laid it out in a simple fashion, showing the violence with no real damnation, but he’s much more attentive to cause and effect. The violence and corruption are levelled out by a karma-like justice. This is probably the strongest aspect of the script, not being gratuitous for the sake of it but giving the nightmarish bloodshed genuine reason to be there.

Having said that though, there’s a problem with narrative balance. The film spends hefty amounts of it’s run time away from characters, including Arvin Russell, the supposed ‘protagonist’. Maybe it’s playing to the novelistic style of it’s stories origin, but too often the film feels chaptered with no real sense of what’s going on around the people on screen. Either the film has to commit to a vignetted style, or try to weave it’s story more delicately either of which would have improved the overall flow, allowing the movie to feel less jolting to it’s audience.

The film can find solace in quality performances though, especially from Tom Holland who has a certain rugged charisma, confidently changing his friendly neighbourhood Spiderman image to one of fragility and anger. He’s joined by Robert Pattinson, who’s been continuously showing how good he is in recent years with brave and intriguing performances. These two, as well as numerous character actors who never fail to impress, all handle the deep locality of it’s setting and people, and also handle the campier moments wonderfully.

The most important thing though is that Campos has delivered us a film that is brutally honest. It’s depiction of violence is earned through it’s religious extremities, and each character is performed wonderfully because of the actors conviction to the roles. It’s the novelistic style of film though, that unfortunately weighs down the final product. Maybe Campos should have prioritised the cinematic visual rather than honouring the book so vividly.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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