Patrick Sweeney’s review published on Letterboxd:
The Devil All the Time is a story that hammers home a point many of us already know – Religion in the hands of the wrong human beings becomes a shield protecting those who should be exposed. It also becomes a weapon that cuts those most vulnerable who see it as a hope to reach an impossible salvation. And they hope so much that they forget to live for the here and now, or worse…become lambs who never see the knife approaching their throat. It’s also a film about a group of individuals who over the connecting period of two decades either pass down their tragedies, or find ways to create new ones. Regardless, the connection is blood. Is it a good movie? I think so, though the lion’s share of the credit goes to its cast for elevating the material beyond a cramped narrative that has far lees to say than it thinks it does.
The Devil All the Time spans multiple generations, with its starting point being the introduction of one character’s trauma. That character is soldier Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), who is serving in the Pacific in 1945 when he and his squad come upon the still-breathing body of Sergeant Miller Jones, who was left to die on a cross by the Japanese. Willard executes him, and find it difficult to look at a cross the same way ever again. Willard returns home and eventually travels to Meade, Ohio, to seek out a relationship with Charlotte Russell (Haley Bennett), a waitress at a cafe. They get married and have a child, who they name Arvin. Misfortune befalls them 1957, leaving a ten-year-old Arvin to be raised by his grandmother. There’s another orphan in the household named Lenora, who became as such due to a terrible ending to her parents; relationship. Lenora’s mother, Helen (Mia Wasikowska) was originally set-up with Willard, but married preacher Roy Laferty (Harry Melling) instead.
The final time jump takes us to 1965, where a now young adult version of Arvin, played by Tom Holland, attempts to get over the memories of his father, but fate puts him once again directly in the path against a place of worship in the form of the new preacher, Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), who’s lustful and hypocritical eye preys on Lenora (Eliza Scanlen). Oh…and there’s also the murdering serial killer couple of Carl & Sandy (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough), who intertwine with the multi-generational narrative at will; Sandy also has ties to her corrupt police officer brother, Sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan).
As you can see, that’s a whole lot of story to wrangle together in a little over two hours, and director Antonio Campos, who adapted the film with his brother Paulo, pull some of it off. The fact is that there are simply too many characters for too short of a time. While the film has a hell of a body count-to-main cast ratio, most of the deaths fail to have as large of an impact as Campos wants, or as much as they generate in the novel, who’s author Donald Ray Pollock needlessly narrates the film. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed his vocal performance and the overall idea is inspired, but the narration feels more like a gap filler that the insanely talented cast could have handled with their skill.
The film’s first 40 minutes or so are dominated by Bill Skarsgård, who sets the tone for the great performances to come. These opening 40 minutes are the movie’s most focused, or at least, focused on a single plot thread. The characters of preacher Roy Laferty and his wife Helen then take over for a brief stint, along with our first real taste of Carl and Sandy, and it’s the first of many times where I felt the film would have worked better as a miniseries, giving time to everyone’s tragedy. I will say that Harry Melling is far way away from his days as Dudley in Harry Potter. His performance here along with his work in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has me fascinated by him.
The remainder of the film belongs to Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson. Holland maintains his natural and youthful energy with a performance that shows his range from rougher Peter Parker, to someone Spider-Man wouldn’t want to be in a room with. It’s a quiet performance as well, one that becomes more and more hardened and enraged as the story goes on. Less quiet is the ridiculously great Pattinson, who sounds nothing like himself, playing a man that suffers from the kind of delusions he rants about on Sundays. A late scene between him and Holland is the film’s highlight. To be honest, the cast in general is the reason to watch this movie (I also have to single out the heartbreaking Eliza Scanlen); the story was constantly engaging, but it’s the cast that keeps it from sinking under its own weight.
The narratives greatest misstep is the subplot of Carl and Sandy, who always feel like intruders on an otherwise connected story. And yes, while I could see the eventual connection coming a mile away, it doesn’t make-up for their every scene stunting the narrative. Sebastian Stan’s character is even worse in this respect, as he gets his own subplot that does little in the way of depth, and instead plods the film in the wrong areas. This isn’t to say that Stan, and especially Clarke and Keough aren’t good, because they’re really good. The story is just too cumbersome to get invested in so many terrible people with little redeeming qualities outside of their very human pitifulness.
Visually the film has a variety of great touches (like using negatives of pictures to view crime scenes) that places you directly in the kind of place where people spend their whole lives trying to escape until they become institutionalized in the walls of white-picket sermons. While the various deaths didn’t always land the full punch, the amount of them gives the movie a sobering mood that never lets up. And though I’ve praised the cast first and foremost, I’ve seen movies where a great cast is wasted; The Devil All the Time isn’t one of them. So while the film doesn’t have anything new to say, at least it says it with vigor.