The Devil All the Time review: A mixed bag of southern slice-of-life stories

The Devil All The Time: Tom Holland as Arvin Russell. Photo Cr. Glen Wilson/Netflix © 2020
The Devil All The Time: Tom Holland as Arvin Russell. Photo Cr. Glen Wilson/Netflix © 2020 /

Though Tom Holland, Eliza Scanlen, and Riley Keough are highlights, The Devil All the Time is bogged down by one too many storylines and some cringe-worthy southern accents.

Anchored by a whole gaggle of stars, Netflix’s The Devil All the Time seemed destined for success, given just how many young talents it featured. However, despite going all in on A-list talent, the film struggles to keep track of all its moving pieces and ends up getting in its way more often than not. Although Tom Holland and Riley Keough are bright spots, The Devil All the Time isn’t focused enough to truly realize its story’s (and cast’s) full potential.

A pseudo-anthology spanning several decades, The Devil All the Time spins several plates at once, looking in on the residents of two fictional towns: Knockemstiff, Ohio, and Coal Creek, West Virginia. Across the two towns (and time frames) are several key characters, including a fiercely protective orphan (Tom Holland), his pious adoptive sister (Eliza Scanlen), the town’s Sherriff (Sebastian Stan), a slimy preacher (Robert Pattinson and his laughable accent), and a Bonnie and Clyde-esque couple who routinely pick up hitchhikers to photograph and murder (Riley Keough and  Jason Clarke).

Those are just the characters who held our interest. The rest of the cast is filled out by Bill Skarsgård, Harry Melling, Mia Wasikowska, and Haley Bennett, all of whom are satisfactory in their roles, but whose characters either don’t have enough screentime or aren’t interesting enough to truly stick with us. The fact that nearly half the cast ends up filling out forgettable, thankless roles speaks to the film’s biggest problem: that its scope is far too wide to be encompassed in one film, even if it’s pushing two-and-a-half hours.

Book-to-movie adaptations are never simple, but when making the jump from one medium to the other, it’s critical to consider if the story functions in a way that will make it suitable to be adapted and condensed into a film that can be viewed in one sitting. Unfortunately for The Devil All the Time, the story it’s trying to adapt is just far too sprawling and ambitious to be done justice in one film.

It’s a shame because each story being told (had it been given enough time) could’ve been impactful, had this been adapted into something more along the lines of a limited series. But as it stands, the film tries to cram every plotline in at once, and what results is some stories outshining the others by so much that any time we cut away from those stories, it feels like a waste of time. The aforementioned stories that outshine the others are the ones directly involving the older version of Tom Holland’s character, Arvin Russell — the plot involving his sister and the town preacher, and the plot involving the couple murdering hitchhikers, whom he eventually runs into.

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Although we imagine that this was the type of film intended to do due dilligence to its entire cast and not just highlight one actor, The Devil All the Time is without a doubt Holland’s film. While at times we found his accent a little distracting (though certainly not as bad as some others), that’s the single complaint we have with his otherwise extraordinary performance. Arvin is incredibly sympathetic while also prone to violent tendencies, but he’s written in such a way that even his violent outbursts are justified in the eyes of the audience, so it’s not at all difficult to root for him.

Holland brings layers to the role. He’s steadfast and prone to violence, yes, but he also has moments of real vulnerability that flesh him out beautifully. He’s a true underdog in every sense of the word. To a lesser extent Eliza Scanlen’s character is also an underdog in a similar vein — although her character lacks Holland’s bite, and ends up being a victim more than anything else, which is a shame given how capable of an actress Scanlen is.

Up against Holland and Scanlen is Robert Pattinson, who plays a slimeball of a traveling preacher who routinely fools around with young women in the towns he visits, only to gaslight and manipulate them into thinking they’re the ones in the wrong. Once you get past the horribly inconsistent accent (subtitles would not go amiss for this film), one can appreciate how Pattinson disappears into the role – incredibly believable as the kind of charismatic, good looking (but ultimately weasley) man who could get away with the disturbing acts he commits.

Also committing some disturbing acts are the other stars of the show: Riley Keough and Jason Clarke as Sandy and Carl Henderson, a married couple who drive around picking up hitchikers, forcing them to sleep with Sandy so that Carl can take pictures, and then murdering them. Their story takes the film from more of a drama to a thriller, and we appreciate how the violence and levity of their plot balance out the extraordinarily slow first half of the film.

Both Keough and Clarke nail their roles. Clarke as the perverted bully of a husband, and Keough as the beautiful and erratic wife who was once okay with being complicit to Carl’s crimes, but grows more and more weary of just how many people they’re hurting. Although their story intertwines the most with Sebastian Stan’s character, he could be cut from the film entirely and it would lose virtually nothing, so for our purposes, the most significant part of their tale is its end, when they have the bad luck of picking up Arvin as their next victim.

As much as it struggles to manage its narrative strings over the course of its runtime, The Devil All the Time does manage to tie them up much more neatly than how it played them out. There’s a sense of symmetry to how each character meets their end, and the ending (though violent and unlucky for many characters) is satisfying from a narrative standpoint.

Despite its cast of extraordinary performers, The Devil All the Time tries to tell too many stories in too little time, and ends up fumbling to balance what could’ve been an excellent drama-thriller. Still, even with its pacing issues, The Devil All the Time is worth the watch for Holland’s impactful performance and the film’s many clever intertwining stories.

Ratched review: Flashy but ultimately shallow. dark. Next

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