Netflix review: Star-studded 'The Devil All the Time' is bleak but compelling


Posted at Sep 19 2020 06:14 AM

Tom Holland in 'The Devil All the Time.' Handout

The dark complex film "The Devil All the Time" interwove the stories of a series of depraved individuals who lived in a remote corner in the backwoods of the American Midwest, from Cook County, West Virginia to Knockemstiff, Ohio. These interconnected stories were happening for about 20 years, from after World War 2 to 1965. The screenplay was adapted by director Antonio Campos (with co-writer Paolo Campos) from the acclaimed debut novel by Donald Ray Pollock.

Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) was a disturbed soldier who just came home from the war. When his wife Charlotte (Haley Bennett) fell ill, he developed a dark obsession with religion and sacrifices. Photographer Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke) would meet his muse and partner-in-crime, Sandy (Riley Keough), the sister of the inept sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan). Fast forward to 1965, Willard's son Arvin (Tom Holland) was now a young man very protective of his adopted sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) in a town where a charismatic new preacher, Rev. Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), held sway over the ladies.

The cast was a gathering of A-list actors, and we definitely get what we expect. Tom Holland gives a gritty yet restrained portrayal of Arvin, a man who had experienced the devil in his life from his childhood to his young adulthood. On the other hand, Sebastian Stan and Robert Pattinson give more florid portrayals of their respective corrupt characters, in contrast with Holland's introspection. Bill Skarsgård had the internal hell Willard visible in his eyes. Jason Clarke and Riley Keough had the deceptive charm required of perverted serial killers.

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Even the character actors around these bigger names give memorably vivid performances in their shorter roles. Harry Melling was convincing as the deluded preacher Roy Laferty for whom spiders were the proof of his salvation, while Pokey LaFarge played his crippled cousin Theodore. Mia Wasikowska was homely and innocent Helen Hatton, who never would have expected her fate after she married Roy and gave birth to Lenora. Kristin Griffith was a comforting presence as Willard's mom and Arvin's grandmother. Tim Blake Nelson only had a couple of scenes as the gas station manager, but still managed to make a mark.

The way this film was directed by Campos, you go into this world without knowing exactly where it was going to take you. You meet a series of mysterious characters as the stories went back and forth in time, not knowing exactly how they connect to each other. An unnamed narrator (author Donald Ray Pollack himself) introduced and linked the scene together.

Despite how unsettling these situations we were witnessing, we still get drawn into these disturbing and disgusting acts these characters did. This was an uncomfortable and bleak 138-minute journey, with unspeakable evils strewn the way. The difficulties of adapting a complex novel into a single film were apparent, but it was a very compelling ride for most of the way.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."