The Devil All the Time is an extremely grim experience that leans into its Western gothic horror vibe with lots of creepy visuals and accomplished well known actors portraying fairly horrible people doing fairly horrible things. The plot structure is haphazard with too many characters as it skips along the decades as parallel stories inevitably crash into each other, although it feels less like epic dark destiny than a series of unfortunately bloody coincidences. Its as if The Cohen Brothers made a crime movie without any of their flair or humour. All the rampant depravity feels a bit exploitive but the actors sell the hell out of it and there is a definitely palpable sense of menace in individual scenes. At least The Devil All the Time is an awesome title.
After returning very traumatized from World War II, Willard (Bill Skarsgard) has a son with a loving wife and finds religion again, however that ends under messy circumstances. At the same time, a preacher, Roy (Harry Melling), has a wife and daughter, which also ends under messy circumstances. The two orphaned kids are raised together as brother and sister, Arvin (Tom Holland) and Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) by Arvin’s kindly grandmother. Into to their lives comes yet another preacher, Preston (Robert Pattinson), who strikes up an inappropriate relationship with Lenora. While all this is going on, a crooked sheriff (Sebastian Stan) is covering up for his crazy sister, Sandy (Riley Keough) and her husband, Carl (Jason Clarke), who have a side hobby of murdering young hitchhikers. With so many evil people in this small area, inevitably things become rather tangled quickly.
All these plotlines intertwine but it doesn’t feel justified, it just sort of happens. After the long first act featuring trauma and warped religion, the movie skips forward to have sort of three different movies going on, a serial killer movie, a rural faith drama, and a corrupt cop crime film. The movie works best as a collection of anthology scenes because the plotlines interconnect awkwardly. Since the serial killer plotline involves picking up unlucky hitchhiker folk on the side of the road that is how the stories come together but it feels kind of hacky. There is a very well delivered voiceover by the novel’s author, Donald Ray Pollock who sounds remarkably like Sam Elliot’s iconic baritone, but it over explains what the characters are feeling and saps the energy out of scenes. Since the movie is over 2 hours long, it definitely could have used some trimming.
The cast assembled is impressive and, amusingly, features a lot of superhero and genre veterans. Stan and Holland are Bucky and Spider-Man from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Pattison is a former sparkly vampire turned future Batman, Skarsgard played Pennywise in IT. Even Melling was Dursley in Harry Potter, Keough was in Mad Max: Fury Rod and Clarke played John Connor in Terminator: Genysis. They’re playing against type here, well aside from Skarsgard who still portrays a scary dude as Willard gets more batty as it goes on and his final scenes are really intense. Pattison gets to preach loudly and be a lecherous creep as the scenes he has with Scanlen are disturbing. As the impressionable young woman, Scanlen is sympathetic and her exit from the movie is a very darkly powerful. Holland is still an empathetic lead although a big decision he makes just seems like a dumb thing to do. The story about the cooked sheriff is almost an afterthought but Stan is good at looking put upon by the world, and a scene he has with Holland at the end is gripping. The serial killer plotline is trashy and hokey, but Keough is good at looking haggard as Clarke turns up the psycho factor.
Director Antonio Campos crafts The Devil All the Time with an unsettling tone as violence can pop up at any moment. Melling as the first crazy preacher is fantastic as he proclaims with certainly that God is so powerful he can protect himself from anything and proves it by pouring spiders over his head. He gets crazier later and the scene Roy has with his wife is jaw droppingly nasty. There’re a few intense shoot outs that don’t go on long, but they have a visceral impact. A moment when the Sheriff decides to do violence on crooks that have wronged him plays out very slowly but effective. When Willard decides to offer up a sacrifice to his God to save his wife from cancer it is very ugly and parallels an intense WWII flashback that opens the film. All these bits are connected by a lot of mumbling and didactic voiceover which isn’t exactly compelling but when the movie decides to turn up the discomfort level it is effective.
The Devil All the Time may not be a great entry in the crime or gothic horror genre but individual bits are very well done. A lot of the heaving lifting is done by the actors who compellingly portray some really messed up people. The movie is best as an individual collection of creepy scenes instead of the thin spiderweb plotting that hangs it all together.
The Devil All the Time
Director: Antonio Campos
Starring: Bill Skarsgard, Harry Melling, Tom Holland, Eliza Scanlen, Robert Pattinson, Sebastian Stan and Riley Keough.