Antonio Campos’ The Devil All The Time weaves together a web of disparate lives within and around Knockemstiff, Ohio, casting light on their interconnected despair under the eyes of God. Bathed in potential, the film boasts an ensemble cast of Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Riley Keough and more, alluring subject matter grounded within a densely religious, post-war milieu, and an acclaimed novel of the same title as its source material. Yet, stripped of these theoretical tick-boxes, there is, unfortunately, little else upholding the film.
Some films are subject to cinematic decay. They rely on a sense of optimism unique to the viewing experience; they are indebted to the idea that, during the course of watching, the story will improve. In anticipating swathes of gritty, stylised violence by way of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, The Devil All The Time‘s mosaic of comedy and aggression blended with ineffectual emotional seriousness yields a rather flat, uninspired sum of its parts. It sustains a lulling sense of dread that never quite comes to fruition; build-ups to violence are rushed or excessively, smugly overwrought and disappointing. Absolutely to the film’s detriment, the overriding feeling it engenders is the hope that something better will happen soon, but not in a way that empathises with the muzzy, dreadful lives of its characters, but rather, it emerges from the dominant feelings of stagnancy and boredom.
Unlike Campos’ 2016 feature Christine, encumbered with dread and stellar focalisation, The Devil All The Time is uncertain how to contain such epic subject matter into a feature-length film. This structural clumsiness is not because of the film’s ambition to balance scattered lives: this can, and has, been done effectively within the duration and conventions of film. It is because its atmosphere is jarringly unstable. Community character-building must be supported by a palpable atmosphere, one which tethers characters to a shared context. Perhaps Campos intended to earn a sense of realism through tonal oscillation, but the film’s flippancy and unstable atmosphere fail to rouse any emotion with conviction. Its atmosphere is compromised between two extremes: neither excessively thrilling nor emotionally poignant. Possibly, this middle-of-the-road atmosphere is to be viewed as oppressive in its monotony, bleak and spacious enough to at least magnify the film’s performances.
Arvin Russell (Tom Holland) is at the centre of the film with the tragedies of his upbringing as one of the film’s narrative priorities. This central role marks Holland’s departure from the MCU and his trajectory to more independent, versatile roles. However, while I believe it is the editing or screenwriting at fault rather than Holland’s performance, nevertheless, Arvin as a character feels rather under-developed. He is a catalyst in enough of the film’s action and unlike other characters, he does at least possess a contextual backstory, yet his interiority feels concealed and ultimately detached. This is because of the totally unnecessary narrator, whose expositional access to the characters ironically alienates the audience from immersion. I felt instructed, cornered even, into ascertaining the film’s humanity; I felt stripped of wilfully finding and harnessing my own relation to its fabric, my own ideas of the film truncated by an omniscient, unexplained presence.
The Devil All The Time doesn’t quite attain status as a ferocious, noir thriller unlike its source material; Donald Ray Pollock’s novel is praised as ‘if the love child of O’Connor and Faulkner was captured by Cormac McCarthy, kept in a cage out back and forced to consume nothing but onion rings, Oxycontin and Terrence Malick‘s Badlands’ (Jeff Baker, The Oregonian). Campos’ less assertive adaptation, by contrast, never quite attains such a visceral result.