‘THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME’ Review: A Miserable Portrait of Backwoods Survival


Courtney Howard // Film Critic


Rated R, 2 hours and 18 minutes

Directed by: Antonio Campos

Starring: Tom HollandHaley Bennett, Bill Skarsgård, Sebastian Stan, Robert PattinsonHarry Melling, Riley Keough, Mia Wasikowska, Eliza Scanlen, Jason Clarke, Kristin Griffith

The world is an unrelentingly sinister landscape of hellfire and fury where kindness is rarely rewarded. It doesn’t take a genius to highlight this type of pessimism. Yet it’s the premise for THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME, a sprawling Appalachian drama that celebrates human and inhumane cruelty adapted from Donald Ray Pollock’s novel. With absolutely no subtext to the text, but with well-acted performances from the ensemble, we’re gifted an unflinching look at man’s inhumanity towards man, although one that fails to properly engage with its subject matter.

Willard’s (Bill Skarsgård) troubled soul was birthed in WWII when he saw a fellow Marine crucified. He carried this traumatic burden home to the backwoods township of Knockemstiff, Ohio. But a chance meeting with diner waitress Charlotte (Haley Bennett) accelerates scar tissue forming over that fissure in his psyche. Marrying, renting a home and having a young son further affords him sanctuary, as does renewing his belief in God – but it’s only temporary.

Meanwhile, Willard’s church-going friend of the family Helen (Mia Wasikowska) becomes smitten with traveling Pentecostal preacher Roy (Harry Melling). They marry and have an infant daughter. However, Roy suffers from delusions and mental illness caused by religious zealotry and he murders Helen, leaving young Lenora (played in her teen years by Eliza Scanlen) in the care of Willard’s mom Emma (Kristin Griffith). On the periphery of it all, another waitress at Charlotte’s diner, Sandy (Riley Keough), falls head over heels for customer Carl (Jason Clarke), who has a fetish for photography and murder. Sandy’s crooked cop brother Lee (Sebastian Stan) turns a blind eye to the mysterious activities of his slippery sis, since he’s covering up his own secrets.

Bill Skarsgård and Michael Banks Repeta in THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME. Photo Cr. Glen Wilson/Netflix © 2020

Writer/director Antonio Campos and his brother/co-writer Paulo Campos flip back and forth on a timeline to set up their players, and use Pollack as a narrator, delivering a similar audible tonality to Will Lyman’s in LITTLE CHILDREN. The disquieting score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, which provides an alluring juxtaposition to the horrors on the surface, sounds inspired by Thomas Newman’s from the aforementioned film as well. Lol Crawley’s cinematography is sleek to contrast the grime, dirt and blood that stains these characters’ hands. Though there are no individual standouts in the cast, they all turn in intensely committed work that tethers us to their characters’ snowballing predicaments.

That said, there’s more bad than good. An incredibly gruesome dog death portrayed in the first act is unshakable. This slaughter, intended by Willard to be a biblically-inspired blood sacrifice to save his dying wife, represents the abrupt death of 9-year-old Arvin’s (Michael Banks Repeta) childhood innocence and factors into a soul-shattering loss of faith for his father, setting into motion greater consequences for his son’s restless spirit. Campos later shows the pup’s corpse in a medium shot (one I’ll refrain from describing since it’s stomach-churning) before panning to discover Willard’s lifeless body underneath. It’s a chilling sequence with the grisly imagery acting as a blatantly shocking and manipulative device. A repulsive revelry starts here, as the filmmakers gleefully bask in the material’s bleak, brutal commentary on the animalistic nature of humans.

Characters exhibiting compassion, empathy, sweetness or other virtues society typically ascribes to women are essentially eaten alive by the cruel world: Young Arvin is bullied because he’s not like the other hillbillies in his backwoods town until he’s taught by his father to use violence to solve problems. 17-year-old Arvin (Tom Holland) is happy with step-sister Lenora until that bliss is cruelly stolen from him courtesy of snake-like preacher Teagardin (Robert Pattinson). Willard shows vulnerability by following God’s light, but it opens him to Satan’s evil. Charlotte, a blessing in Willard’s life who radiates warmth and generosity, gets cancer and dies. Helen is brutally murdered at the hands of her religious zealot husband, though he gets his comeuppance from evil folk. Lenora’s naiveté and trust in authority gets her into lots of problems – intended and not. Sandy’s greatest downfall is her genuine love for a bad man, which leads her down the wrong road and into a dead end. Her brother Lee’s unwavering protectiveness gets him into a few bad ways.

Situations are interminably drawn out to enhance the characters’ despair and the gloomy temperature of the picture. Minor happenstances that leave major imprints – a seat not taken, a bucket’s instability, a shift in the weather – are crudely explored. It culminates in a thoroughly predictable end chapter determined to make its audience feel awful and perhaps frustrated by how a simple plot has been made overly cumbersome and belabored. The filmmakers’ obvious sentiments are that the world is evil, religion harbors and praises false prophets, and things are always going to be terrible. It’s 2020. We’re already familiar with abject misery.

Grade: 2 out of 5

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME streams on Netflix on September 16.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.