Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “The Devil All the Time” (2020)

Directed by Antionio Campos and adapted from the novel by Donald Ray Pollock (who also narrates), this Netflix original film stars Tom Holland as Arvin Russell and sees him striving to protect his sister (Eliza Scanlen) from harm, navigating through a world of untrustworthy preachers, crooked cops, and travelling killers, and the film tells several interconnecting stories as we become all too aware that the fates of these characters are inextricably linked.

A high profile literary adaptation from the streaming giant, given its enviable cast of recognisable actors that includes Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Bill Skarsgård and Riley Keough just to name a few, there must have been some fairly high expectations for this new Netflix original and although the popular streaming service can’t avoid spitting out some uninspired stinkers once in a while, The Devil All the Time is thankfully one of their better films and it succeeds thanks to its excellent direction, writing, cinematography, music and soundtrack, and performances from its ensemble cast.

Christine director Antonio Campos (who also co-writes the film’s screenplay along with his brother Paulo) does a very good job in helming the film because although the film has an arguably generous runtime, there’s hardly ever a dull or boring moment and Campos manages to maintain a sure and steady pace, making sure that there’s always something relevant or interesting happening and holding our attention for the duration of the film. He also manages to juggle several tones very effectively; the film presents us with a blend of brooding drama, dark humour, a touch of horror, and also a few moments of tenderness and hope, and Campos competently balances these disperate elements very well, giving the film a dark and unsettling atmosphere while also never letting it get overly depressing, focusing on character depth and instilling a sense of good feeling and tenderness in certain moments. Personally, I was fully expecting the film to be overwhelmingly gloomy and excessively violent but I was satisfied to discover that all the doom and gloom was kept at a reasonable level.

The Campos brothers also do a swell job in adapting Pollock’s novel to the big screen and in particular, it’s admirable that they are able to coherently tell the stories of the several different characters, setting up their motivations and arcs and making it so that they all connect further down the line, and although there are many characters for us to get to know, they are all given equal development and a chance to make their presences known; in lesser hands, a writer could ignore some characters or fumble with the interconnectivity of the stories but the Capmoses manage to structure the film really well, using flashbacks at all the right moments, and they develop and connect the characters in a very satisfying way. They also make use of a narrator, in this case original author Donald Ray Pollock, and it gives the film a unique, noir-ish touch as well as letting us know exactly what the characters are thinking and planning, but at certain moments, the narration does state the obvious, which is a little annoying.

Their script is also very good, all of the writing and dialogue hitting the ear just right, and they also do well in reinforcing and sticking to the major theme of the film: religion. In a world filled with preachers, crosses, and killers who can quote bible and verse in their sleep, religion is a large part of all the characters’ lives and in this film, it is shown as an all too powerful, fearful and inescapable force that can lead people to do terrible things, certain characters using religion as a shield for all the awful things that they do, and while the film doesn’t go overboard with showing what harm it can do, it’s interesting to note that religion is indeed a major theme, the motivation behind many of the characters’ actions, and it’s this major theme that gives the film its primary raison d’être.

The Devil All the Time is also a technically impressive film and in particular, it has some effective cinematography that gives us some pleasing shots of the West Virginia/Ohio setting (though Alabama in real life) and additionally, the film also has a good score soundtrack, the score blending moodiness, horror and occasional lightheartedness and the soundtrack featuring many era-specific tracks that calls to mind O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

A major attraction for many will be the film’s big name cast and the acting talents of the ensemble cast do indeed contribute to the overall strength of the feature. In the leading role, Tom Holland is given the opportunity to do something that’s very different from all of his previous Marvel appearances and as Arvin, he has the necessary likeability and it’s easy to support him as he attempts to protect his sister from those who would do her harm, also clearly scarred by what happened to his father many years previously, but at the same time, he’s also able to show plenty of toughness and a violent nature as he fights back against certain oppressive figures and all in all, Holland delivers a very mature, deep and powerful performance. We also have a Southern-accented Robert Pattinson as the antagonistic preacher and, in yet another role that’s different from those he’s done before, he manages to appear effectively sinister, slimy and self-righteous, using and abusing his power as he humiliates Arvin’s family and then uses his religion as his shield, and he delivers a magnetic and memorable performance as the villainous preacher (though it’s not as special as that of his future Batman co-star Paul Dano in There Will be Blood!) And thirdly, Bill Skarsgård gets a lot of material to work with and he gives us a worthy dramatic performance as Arvin’s father, a man haunted by war and who becomes incredibly God-fearing as he makes whatever sacrifices are necessary to save his dying wife.

Elsewhere in the cast, Jason Clarke delivers a noteworthy performance as an antagonistic serial killer, appearing as slimy and as villainous as some of the other characters, and Riley Keough shows plenty of vulnerability and depth as his accomplice, Eliza Scanlen is sweet and supportable as Arvin’s sister, Sebastian Stan is more Jeff Gilooly than Bucky Barnes as the sleazy crooked cop, and Harry Melling gives perhaps his most mature and impressive performance yet as a, you guessed it, villainous preacher. The film also stars Haley Bennett and Mia Wasikowska but in all honesty, they don’t have much to do.

An engrossing and intriguing dark drama that efficiently tells several interconnecting stories and which benefits from strong direction, good writing, appealing cinematography, and several strong performances from its ensemble cast, particularly Holland, Pattinson and Skarsgård.

★ ★ ★ ★

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