Based on the debut novel of Donald Ray Pollock, the new Netflix film The Devil All the Time is the kind of grim crime epic that Hollywood is too timid to make now and will likely be even more hesitant to make moving forward. As has been the case for the past few years but especially during the year when the pandemic brought movie theaters to their knees, Netflix is more than willing to take on the challenge of making the mid-budget thrillers that people statistically haven’t been leaving the house to see. Wisely, they’ve taken a cue from a key box office principle: people are drawn to familiar faces and names when they consider what to watch and this film is packed to the brim with both.
Taking place over multiple decades in the south central Ohio town of Knockemstiff (yes, it’s a real place), the sprawling story begins as Marine vet Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) meets a pretty waitress (Haley Bennett) at a diner. They soon have their son Arvin (Tom Holland) but after a number of years pass, he loses both of his parents in a pair of terrible tragedies. Arvin is taken in by his grandmother Emma (Kristin Griffith) and adopted step-sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), who is ruthlessly bullied by classmates on a daily basis. A violent streak begins to develop in Arvin as he seeks revenge on those who threaten Lenora and his family, setting into motion events that eventually involve the local reverend (Robert Pattinson) and the town’s sheriff (Sebastian Stan).
The film’s stunning cast, which also includes Riley Keough, Jason Clarke and Harry Potter alum Harry Melling, is practically a who’s who of rising stars within mainstream and independent cinema. But this isn’t just a good looking call sheet of recognizable stars, as most of the actors are doing some of the best work of their careers here. At the center of this expansive “Southern” Gothic is Holland, who effortlessly sheds the Spidey suit and gives a fierce performance that is leagues away from the jokey tone of his MCU output. Skarsgård absolutely dominates the film’s first act, conveying the lasting impact of wartime trauma which reverberates throughout the rest of the grueling story. Even the more daring performances, especially the one turned in by Pattinson, aren’t without their off-kilter rewards.
Taking on a much more complex and unwieldy narrative than that of his previous film Christine, director Antonio Campos does an admirable job of tying together these disparate characters as they ebb and flow through the tides of fate. He introduces more themes than he properly resolves but the chief musings on cycles of violence and the dangers of organized religion come through with resounding clarity. Aiding Campos in his storytelling is a voiceover narration by none other than the book’s author, who obviously knows this story and its characters better than anybody. Despite a handful of clumsy incidents of over-explaining, Pollock’s weathered timbre and measured cadence gives the film an appropriately cold-blooded quality.
Implementing 35mm film, cinematographer Lol Crawley (an ironic first name, given the movie’s utterly humorless tone) tinges the frame with a subdued naturalism that compliments the rural setting swimmingly. The film’s agreeable color palette and stacked cast will likely be enough to keep even those who find the story too bleak around for most, if not all, of the 138 minute runtime. I certainly wouldn’t blame audiences for wanting to seek out more uplifting material in these distressing times but the steadfast effort put forth by Campos and company is inspiring in its own right. The Devil All the Time is a powerful parable about the inescapable tethers of fate and familial bonds.
Score – 3.5/5
New movies this weekend:
Playing at drive-ins and limited theaters is Possessor, a sci-fi horror film starring Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott about a corporate agent who uses brain-implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is The Glorias, a biopic starring Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander which covers the life and career of feminist activist Gloria Steinem.
Available to stream on Netflix is The Boys in the Band, an LGBT drama starring Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto about a group of close friends whose party is interrupted by an unexpected guest.