For a while, Antonio Campos’ The Devil All the Time casts an effective spell. Adapted from the book of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, the film is packed with stars — Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Bill Skarsgård, Sebastian Stan, Riley Keough, just to name a few — all playing characters that are larger in life in some way. But the longer the film wears on, the thinner that spell becomes. Pollock’s novel follows disparate characters across two generations of a family. Campos and his brother Paulo Campos, who co-wrote the script, do their best to pack the entire book into 138 minutes, but the sheer amount of compacting that has to happen turns the story into a litany of unfortunate events rather than an American epic.
Most of the action is concentrated around Holland, who plays a young man named Arvin Russell. Among the people in his orbit are Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), his step-sister and the daughter of the woman his grandmother wanted his father (Skarsgård) to marry; Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy (Keough), a couple who indulge in murdering hitchhikers and taking photos of the gruesome killings; and Pattinson as the less-than-holy Reverend Teagardin.
The characters pass in and out of the story. Though Arvin is ostensibly the film’s central character, the action often drifts away from him as the Campos brothers attempt to keep the audience up to date with what everyone’s up to, no matter how far apart they are. The colorful performances help keep the constantly bouncing focus from getting too grating, but there are still too many cooks in the kitchen. The film is spread so thin in trying to focus on so many characters that the characters get boiled down to Southern accents and a single personality trait each.
In some cases, as in Pattinson’s, that’s enough. Pattinson’s performance in The Devil All the Time feels of a kind with his turn in The King last year: Teagardin has a pronounced accent and a reedy vocal timbre, and is one of the film’s more caricature-esque characters by virtue of how incredibly slimy he is. Pattinson goes big with the performance, especially when Teagardin is preaching, big enough that it doesn’t matter that Teagardin doesn’t have any backstory or real reason for being, other than bringing further misery into Arvin’s life.
In other cases, however, the lack of character development can’t quite be covered up. Clarke, for instance, is given nothing to work with except a penchant for violence and a few tics that are only explained in voiceover, by Pollock himself. As for violence, the movie is overflowing with it. Only a couple of moments are truly gory, but barely a single thing happens to Arvin and his family that isn’t driven by malice or revenge. The misfortunes visited upon the Russells become so frequent that it’s almost laughable. One character, about to attempt suicide by hanging, decides not to, then accidentally knocks over the bucket they were standing on. It’s a tragedy, yes, but a blip in the film’s emotional stakes, because so little time has been spent on developing these characters’ inner lives.
That thinness also makes some of the editing choices all the more baffling. While the primary narrative thrust is linear, a few moments are revisited in a “gotcha” way, as the retreads offer up a few new details about whatever happened in that scene. The effect isn’t shocking so much as frustrating, not least because the added information only colors in a little more of the overall picture. On top of that, while Campos is trying to be expansive, the scope of the film never expands widely enough to include a single person of color. As Campos casts his lens upon a few recurring secondary characters as well as the community surrounding the Russells, filling in the space the Russells are living in, that exclusion feels increasingly clumsy.
The Devil All the Time makes its milieu as tangible as possible, with each person and location covered in a convincing amount of dust and dirt. It’s filled with pretty faces, but quality cinematography doesn’t mean that much in the end. The film is easy on the eyes, and its cast is strong, but that doesn’t make up for a thin story. The action keeps moving by necessity, given how many characters are in play, but stop to inspect the proceedings, and it becomes clear that that movement isn’t based on much.
The Devil All the Time is streaming on Netflix now.