The Devil All the Time review: a deadening slab of American gothic

Antonio Campos’s adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s tapestry of post-war Midwestern no-goodery is a weirdly pallid and buttoned-up litany of bloodletting.

The Devil All the Time (2020)

▶︎ The Devil All the Time is streaming on Netflix.

Spoiler alert: this review gives away major plot details.

Ending your film with the main character yawning right into the camera, as director Antonio Campos does here, takes an amount of self-confidence – mightn’t the audience follow suit? By this point in The Devil All the Time, no-one is going to mistake it for a joke. Instead it prompts the question how it is that two and a quarter hours of nonstop murder, torture and tragedy leads only to drowsiness – and since everyone is watching it at home, why not give in and nod off?

It is doubtful that Campos’s film would have had a real cinema opening even in better times, despite its A-/B+-list cast, and in that sense it’s a throwback to the far-off late 2010s, when a Netflix release tended to mean a middlebrow movie that hadn’t come out right. Whereas direct-to-video might connote trashiness or even weirdness, the unrisen soufflés of Netflix connote mere tedium. “Handsomely mounted” but congenitally inert, apparently beyond recutting, they may as well run as long as they do.

The main character, more last man standing than protagonist, is Arvin, a teenager raised in postwar West Virginia and Ohio, whose guilt-ridden Pacific War veteran father killed himself after his mother died of cancer, and whose orphaned step-sister killed herself after getting knocked up by an evangelical preacher, who Arvin went on to kill, only to be picked up by a married couple of serial killers who he also killed – one of whom happened to be the sister of the murderous corrupt sheriff who comforted Arvin after his father’s death all those years before. Arvin has to kill him too.

And that’s about half of the hypertrophied plot of The Devil All the Time, which more or less begins with a GI left crucified by the retreating Japanese, and ends with Arvin contemplating signing up for Vietnam – a not-terrible bit of parallelism though one that seems to be motivated by the author’s need to introduce a nice bit of parallelism.

Bill Skarsgård as Willard and Michael Banks Repeta as young Arvin Russell

The author is Donald Ray Pollock, who wrote the source novel and provides the film’s highly intrusive voiceover. At first this seems to be a joke – by turns pedantic and portentous, telling us what characters are thinking, hinting at what’s in store for them, all the while sounding like a whisky advert, he could be a creation of the Coen brothers.

But eventually it dawns that this is the real thing. The effect is somehow presumptuous – we learn about the tragic end of this or that character when we’ve barely met them. Possibly the characters shine on the page, but none of them leave a mark on the screen – not even the lecherous preacher, a stock character Robert Pattinson doesn’t do anything much with. (Arvin meanwhile is played by Tom Holland; whether their accents are accurate or not is for others to say, but it’s typical of the film that, while everyone is aware that they’re doing accents, no-one is allowed to really just go for it – even that pleasure is denied us.)

Early on, when one still suspects he’s being arch, the narrator ponders whether the plot he’s about to unfold is random or fated, and concludes it’s a bit of both. Telling rather than showing is fine when the narrator has something interesting to impart, but this is about his level throughout.

There is still plenty of showing – this murderer will be murdered by serial killers; that murderer won’t; this preacher is a true believer and murders his wife; that preacher is a fraud and grooms one of his flock. For all the plotting, there is curiously little suspense, and while a pattern emerges, all that it adds up to is that “there’s a lot of no-good sons of bitches out there”, a repeated line, something sons have to learn as their fathers did, and surely don’t need to be told by the movies.