A Hellish Bore with Some Standout Moments: The Devil All the Time (2020) - Reviewed

Image courtesy of Netflix

Netflix original content is hit or miss for me. Either they have a successful movie or series that draws me in and tells a wonderful story, or they miss the boat entirely, and leave me sitting on my couch thinking about the better ways I could have spent my evening. The cast of The Devil All The Time drew me in, but left me with mixed thoughts about this film’s success. From director Antonio Campos, The Devil All the Time is based on a book of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, who is also the film’s omniscient narrator. With a strong cast pulling much of the weight in this film, the plot was often confusing, despite my best attempts to understand and enjoy this film.

The plot jumps between two generations of characters, and covers a lot of time, making it quite difficult to summarize. Often the scene will begin, and the narration will take us five, ten, fifteen years back and work to the present moment. This structure had some benefits for the movie, in particular building tension between the future events the audience knows and the struggles in the flashback. However, this structure was confusing in as many places as it worked. By jumping back, the audience learns a lot about the past of the characters, but it also breaks the flow of the story. I would be invested in a scene, and suddenly the movie jumps ten years.
The story really picks up when the main character Arvin (Tom Holland) becomes a teenager and starts to take a critical look at the people around him. This film is primarily concerned with the ways evil, or the devil to use the film’s language, works its way into our lives. Well meaning people fall to temptations, and people who the devil claimed long ago wreak havoc among the small communities where the story takes place. Despite giving us a lot of backstory into the characters, the movie doesn’t explore their evil in any sort of personal depth. Rather it seems to show, or rather tell with the narration, the audience that the characters are faltering without exploring in a more intimate way why they fell. Although we know all the particulars about their lives, the characters often feel flat as their conflicts are narrated for us, as opposed to really getting into an exploration of evil.


The story covers a large swath of time, as well as a large cast of characters. Lots of story lines pick up, and cross with each other throughout the film. With such a large cast of characters spread across such an expanse of time, there is always going to be some inherent confusion when trying to keep everything straight. Although there was some difficulty with this in the film, I really enjoyed the crossing story lines. By giving the audience a passing familiarity with the characters and their motivations before putting them in conflict with one another, this film built tension between what the audience knows, and what the characters know. One of the storylines features a serial killer couple, Sandy (Riley Keough) and Carl (Jason Clarke) who travel around picking up hitch hikers. Whenever a character gets into their car, the audience knows what to expect but the passenger does not, lending a sinister tone to everything Sandy and Carl say or do during the ride.


Despite many of the characters lacking the depth I hoped for, the cast brought these characters to life in a way that almost made up for it. Two stand outs were Tom Holland who played Arvin, and Robert Patterson who plays Rev. Preston Teagardin, a sleezy preacher who moves into Arvin’s town. Arvin’s motivations, as given to us by the narrator, are carefully executed by Holland. Rev. Preston, whose true motivations are revealed more subtly, are brought out so well by Patterson’s acting that the audience knows who his character is before he even delivers his first line.


This is a film that is also very concerned with place. Much of the action happens between a few tiny towns in West Virginia, as the characters bounce around between them. This film is most successful where it pays particular attention to the setting. Rooting the plot in a specific place helps foster the connections between the characters. Everyone knows each other in these small towns, which helps to build the connections between the characters as they travel between towns and interact with each other.
Despite my best attempts to really enjoy this movie, its slowly unfolding plot, the structure of the film, and the lack of character depth of motivation pulled me out of the story too many times. While the acting was quite spectacular, and the source material seems to be quite strong, much of these strengths were brought down by poor execution of the winding plot.
-Patrick Bernas