Evil wears many faces in Antonio Campos’ somber The Devil All The Time (2020) – a tale about one eager heart set against the parochial, pre-Vietnam America where religious fanatics roam freely.
In a secretly located grove two people – Willard Russell and his young son Arvin – pray in front of a handmade, wooden cross. Their peaceful grace is disturbed by two poachers who disrespect their Willard’s wife. Determined to finish the prayer, the man stalls the act of vengeance. When an opportunity occurs later that day, the two ill-mannered gentlemen get roughened-up. Upon the moment he wipes blood off his fists, Willard lectures Arvin, ‘Just gotta pick the right time’.
That one scene faultlessly describes the essence of The Devil All The Time (2020). Antonio Campos tackles Donald Ray Pollock’s novel in a way that all roads lead to a crossroads between violence and faith – the two denominators common to everyone involved in this plot.
The Devil All The Time (2020) – a violent, rural-America story
Arvin Russell (Tom Holland) becomes the backbone of The Devil All The Time (2020), although Tom Holland – who plays the adult version of the character – shows up on the screen only after 40 minutes or so. The boy’s life ain’t no bed of roses, and the folks down in the countryside aren’t particularly generous-spirited people. In order to make a point of the hardships of being a sheep among wolves, Antonio Campos spreads the story thin between the bad guys who cross paths with Arvin. Among them is an abusive preacher Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), a corrupted sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) and a crazed duo of road-loving murderers, Carl (Jason Isaacs) and Sandy (Riley Keough).
Truth be told, Pollock’s novel delves into all kinds of crazed minds which are bound by their God-abiding surface. Hardly ever do you find a non-believer in this land, alas those ardent Christians bear more guilt than atheists. That seems to be of particular interest of director Antonio Campos – to understand how evil is born in the presence of God.
Antonio Campos contemplates the intersection of faith and fanaticism
In fact, the Lord’s bidding gets warped in truly horrific ways – leading to manslaughter and other acts of unspeakable cruelty. Campos doesn’t shy away from presenting that sadism, hence the faint of heart might have a hard time watching particular scenes. In that sense, Pollock’s world belongs right next to Cormac McCarthy’s, and films based on this writer’s novels. It’s a small-town penitentiary without steel bars and guards, where sickening acts are the everyday bread.
Nonetheless, Campos isn’t as fascinated with on-screen violence as, for instance, Quentin Tarantino is. But the build-up to those shocking moments feels heavy, sticky like a warm Summer day, and its vivid depiction remains close to titles such as Out of The Furnace (2013) or Lawless (2012), or its more dated inspiration Mississippi Burning (1988). In spite of the overwhelming saturation of bad things and bad people, Antonio Campos manages to sell the story thanks to his star-studded ensemble.
Actors shine across the whole film
Tom Holland, whom we best know as Spiderman from the MCU, puts on a poised performance, which proves his dramatic flair. Holland’s boyish smile has been disabled, and traded for low-simmering anger. Due to the structure of The Devil All The Time (2020), the young actor can’t have the show on his own though, hence three other stars deserve credit too – Robert Pattinson, Riley Keough and Jason Clarke.
Earlier this year I watched Them That Follow (2019) – another story of rural fanaticism – where Walton Goggins appeared as a sleazy preacher with rather shady shenanigans going on. But Pattinson pushed the envelope in that matter. By incorporating an odd, hardly locatable accent – as well as predatory instincts revealed in his body language – Robert Pattinson builds an appalling, even more disturbing version of a schematic evil priest. Similarly to another Netflix original The King (2019), where the actor starred as a french prince, Pattinson makes the most out of a tiny role tailor-made for him.
Yet my true supporting heroes are Bonnie & Clyde on acid – Riley Keough and Jason Clarke. Keough as a femme fatale-turned-escapee is accompanied by her deranged, authoritarian husband. The two emanate with ravenous quality, which at times reminded me of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built (2018). Lamentably, Campos gives them little time to blossom.
The Devil All The Time (2020) is ornamented with great shots & music too
Solid acting arrives on all fronts, and the ensemble truly elevates the sometimes too-downtrodden atmosphere, however The Devil All The Time (2020) also benefits from the score by Danny Bensi & Sander Jurriaans. Synthetic ambient blends with folk ballads and music specific for the period setting, and it’s all elegantly complementary. Equally well-crafted and fitting is Lol Crawley’s cinematography. Characters are often found in climatic dim lights and dark interiors, while the open-space scenes are filled with provincial spirit.
I’m rather worried that The Devil All The Time (2020) might have missed its shot at the festival circuit due to its attachment to the Netflix logo. Campos directs with auteur soul and vision, which can be hard-hitting and even tiresome, so it’s not a Sunday film. However, those who like venturing into the ‘Hello darkness, my old friend’ areas, should find The Devil All The Time (2020) a worthwhile watch.
Read here why Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) is the most polarizing film of the year.
The Devil All The Time (2020)
Hate Grade: 2.5/10
Director: Antonio Campos
Writer: Antonio Campos, Paulo Campos, Donald Ray Pollock (based on a book by)
Starring: Tom Holland, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Robert Pattinson
Cinematography: Lol Crawley
Music: Danny Bensi & Sander Jurriaans
Where to watch: Netflix