If you consider yourself an optimist, it’s probably best not to watch the new Netflix film The Devil All The Time, one of the more pessimistic films in recent years. Set in the backwater towns of Coal Creek, West Virginia, and Knockemstiff, Ohio, the world of the film is filled with all manner of wrongdoers, with completely innocent people in drastically short supply.
Marketers would like viewers to believe that Tom Holland – your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man! – is the main character in the film. While Arvin Russell becomes the protagonist, it takes him a while to show up. Instead, the film goes into great detail about the generational trouble in the two towns, including Arvin’s father Willard (Bill Skarsgård) and Roy Laferty (Harry Melling), both of whom rely on religion fervently, leading to some very ill-advised decisions.
By the time Arvin comes of age, things are scarcely better. Local sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) is on the take from the criminal underground; husband-and-wife Carl and Sandy Henderson (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) are continuing their long tradition of picking up hitchhikers, seducing them, and then killing them; and a new pastor, Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), is preying on young, impressionable girls, including Roy’s daughter, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen).
Written and directed by Antonio Campos, with help from co-writer Paulo Campos, the film is most notable for the ever-present specter of death. Death comes early and often, and viewers would be wise not to get too attached to any particular character. Even when dying imminently is not a concern, life is no fun for anyone in the film, with bullying, disease, sexual assault, and more haunting different characters.
The film bounces around so much that it’s difficult to connect with anybody. Folksily narrated by Donald Ray Pollack, who wrote the book on which it’s based, the film never spends enough time with any one person for them to become more than just a stereotype. It comes the closest with Arvin, but even he is given no more credit than just being a somewhat more level-headed clone of his father.
On the flip side, there’s so much evil in the world of this film that the results of it fail to have an impact. By the end of the 138-minute film, it’s a surprise if any character hasn’t committed some foul deed. The nonstop display of wickedness dulls the senses and becomes exhausting, which is usually the opposite reaction a filmmaker desires.
Mostly, the film seems like merely a chance for actors to test out their Southern accents, which is interesting since many of them – Holland, Pattinson, Skarsgård, Stan, Clarke, Scanlen, and Melling – are not from the United States. Pattinson is particularly egregious with his accent, as it comes off as if something was stuck in his throat.
Still, the innate skills of the stacked cast, which also includes glorified cameos by Haley Bennett and Mia Wasikowska, make the film watchable. Most notable are Holland, whose boyish face and aw-shucks demeanor mesh well with his character, and Clarke, who is the most effective because he just seems to ooze badness.
No one would want to live in a world like the one portrayed in The Devil All The Time, and even watching it for a couple of hours is a hard sell in this day and age. Movies about bad people can work, but they need much more depth than the filmmakers delivered here.
The Devil All The Time is playing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix.