Netflix has been releasing films left and right ever since quarantine began, some good and some awful. However, it is hard to say they have released a project in recent weeks as star-studded as The Devil All the Time, a family saga that takes place in rural West Virginia/Ohio during post-World War II America. From the very beginning to the last couple minutes, this movie is packed with recognizable faces from the past couple years of film, from Bill Skarsgård (Pennywise in It) to Sebastian Stan (The Winter Soldier in the MCU) to Jason Clarke (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Everest, Mudbound among many others). The cast of this dark and gritty drama is what is going to grab most viewers’ attention and convince them to watch, but unfortunately once they start watching they’ll likely be turned away by a boring and tedious drag of a film. Never is The Devil All the Time aggressively terrible, but it is so bland and forgettable that it was difficult for me to sit through the entire movie.
The general plot of this film is difficult to briefly explain because it spans multiple generations and families in the small towns of Meade, Ohio and Coal Creek, West Virginia. We aren’t introduced to the main actor (Tom Holland of Spider-Man fame) until about a third of the way through the movie because it focuses on his parents and many other players that influence the main plot. Arvin’s parents (Skarsgård & Haley Bennett) fall in love one day at a diner in Meade and go on to raise Arvin (Holland) and shape him into the flawed man he becomes. While this is all happening, another couple (Clarke and Riley Keough) is luring in young, attractive men and murdering them with the promise of letting them have sex with Keough’s character. At the same time, a corrupt cop (Stan) is trying to win an election campaign to be sheriff and some even more corrupt pastors (Harry Melling and Robert Pattinson) are committing horrible acts in the name of the Lord.
The Devil All the Time contains more depravity and grit than 90 percent of films in Hollywood right now, yet all of it seems like it’s pointless. One of the tag-lines for this movie in its marketing campaign is “Some people are just born to be buried,” which ironically details one of the major reasons the story is so boring and uninteresting. The majority of the countless characters in this film have no backstory, no fascinating characteristics, no anything that would make them compelling; they are just messed up people who are thrown into this story so they can kill some people and then get killed when their job in the story has been served. The primary characters who got on my nerves were the husband and wife serial killer duo played by Clarke and Keough. Both actors are more than capable of carrying a compelling narrative, but their talent is wasted by a script that gives them nothing to do except occasionally kill another character. We do not know why they are so sick and twisted, nor do we know the motivation behind their acts save for one lazily thrown in line of narration. Not one scene with these characters was remotely interesting, and this writing fallacy applies to just about every character in the film.
The only character who I cared for throughout The Devil All the Time was Holland’s Arvin, who also delivers the best performance in the movie. They spend far too little time on him but we still see him grow up from a young boy to a man, giving him a fleshed out backstory and a character arc that makes you feel as if he is a good kid trapped in a horrible situation. If this movie had trimmed all of the pointless subplots and focused on Holland’s performance, then it might have created an emotionally affecting story about the pitfalls of living in an atmosphere which can slowly suffocate you. Instead we get a messy comment on the horrors of religious fanaticism that hammers home the same message over and over again using different actors.
The major theme here could be seen as a comment on how the toxic American South can churn out damaged men and women who exhaust their misdirected faith, or it could simply serve as a cautionary tale about how blind faith in God can destroy a family or an individual. Whatever the point, the script shoves these themes in the viewer’s face for so long that by the end I could have cared less about what the director/writer was trying to tell the audience. This movie is a very long two hours and 18 minutes, and by the one hour mark I was just waiting for the credits to roll so I could get on with my night. All of the gruesome deaths and disturbing events were predictable and all contained plot elements I have seen with better execution in other films. The only reason I actually sat through this entire movie was so I could write this review.
The direction is more than competent, the acting is good all around, and all of the technical aspects (especially costume and production design) are on point. Yet The Devil All the Time is still reduced to a bore of a film due to some bland writing, horrible pacing and non-existent character development. Only after I finished the film did I realize it was based on a critically acclaimed novel, and looking back on it this makes perfect sense: there is constant narration that doesn’t add to the story at all except to give pointless exposition; the characters never feel fully developed because the screenwriter couldn’t figure out how to adapt the book descriptions to the screen; and it is so tedious and overlong because the writer tried to fit the whole book into two hours and 18 minutes. I appreciate the effort to adapt an ambitious rural epic to the big screen, but they either should’ve changed the focus or cut plotlines out. The Devil All the Time ended up being nothing more than a waste of my night despite the fantastic cast, and in just a week this film will end up just being another forgotten entry under the “Netflix Originals” label.
I give The Devil All the Time a C-.