Review: `The Devil All the Time’ is much a-brood about nothing

Douglas Laman
Special to Texoma Marketing and Media Group
Tom Holland, left, and Robert Pattinson face off in "The Devil All the Time."

We are all born in the shadows of the past. The characters of “The Devil All the Time” are no different. This expansive saga, taking place primarily in and around Coal River, West Virginia, begins with U.S. Marine Willard Russell (played by Bill Skarsgard). He's returned home to have a child with a local waitress, but he's still haunted by the memories of his time serving in the war. All the carnage he experienced overseas exposed Russell to a level of human depravity he didn't think was possible. In Russell's eyes, the only way to fight that evil is with equal levels of terrifying force. Before he passes away, that's the message Russell instills in his son, Arvin Russell (Tom Holland).

Ah, but it's not just father and son coping with the past. There's also corrupt Sheriff Lee Boedecker (Sebastian Stan), who's worried about his past misdeeds coming back to haunt him come re-election time. Let's also not forget about serial-killer couple Sandy (Riley Keough) and Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke). Carl lives in the moment photographing people they murder. Sandy, on the other hand, is certainly caught up thinking about how her life has gotten to be filled with blood and torment. Further unifying all of them, plus Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), is the fact that religion tends to inform their behavior. The Lord is supposed to be merciful. The actions of people who follow him, not so much.

Adapted from a novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, “The Devil All the Time” is a mighty sweeping narrative. In the hands of screenwriters Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos (the former also directs), there's a number of admirable qualities in the movie storytelling. For one thing, “The Devil All the Time” has no problem taking its sweet time with the kind of digressions other movies would cut from the script before they even started rolling the cameras. “Devil” is in no hurry to rush through its wall-to-wall misery, as reflected by its 138-minute run time. This allows the viewer to truly live in its world, soak in all the details of these seemingly random lives, rather than rush through it all.

The way “The Devil All the Time” totally commits to both bursts of nonlinear storytelling and a sprawling cast is similarly remarkable. Campos is not trying to make a conventional film with “The Devil All the Time,” and that's especially reflected in its pervasively grim tone. Call each character in this movie a 1994 Nine Inch Nails song, because they're riddled with hurt. Unfortunately, the execution of the tone is one of the many ways “The Devil All the Time” is more interesting in theory than it is in practice. For one thing, the way grimness manifests across the individual characters tends to get very repetitive very quickly. There's a surprising lack of specificity to the onscreen torment that doesn't make it as impactful as it could be.

In the first 40 minutes of “The Devil All the Time,” we become privy to an avalanche of misery befalling the Russell family. There's so much traumatic stuff happening here - from discovering a crucified soldier to the death of a family pet. This family makes the twins in “I Know This Much is True” look like happy-go-lucky Pollyannas. All of it should be as traumatic for the viewer as it is for the characters onscreen. But all of these events happen in such rapid succession that they don’t really leave an impact. You get numb to it after a while, especially when every other character in the movie is informed by a similar sense of woe. Everybody in this movie is Sergeant Calhoun from “Wreck-It Ralph,” programmed with "the most tragic backstory ever."

It's not all bad in “The Devil All the Time” - far from it. The actors are uniformly putting in good work, particularly Holland, who does a great job expressing simultaneous angst and confusion in the second half. A scene of him and Pattinson having an exchange in an empty church is possibly the best sequence in the movie. No distracting narration here, just two actors going mano a mano with a well-executed sense of growing dread in their interaction. Sometimes that's all you need to make compelling drama. “The Devil All the Time” could have used more of that kind of drama. The devil is in the details, as they say. For “The Devil All the Time,” its generic details betray its lofty ambitions.

A lifelong movie fan and writer, Douglas Laman graduated from UT Dallas and is currently a graduate student at the University of North Texas. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.