Truth and Movies

The Devil All the Time

Review by Hannah Woodhead @goodjobliz

Directed by

Antonio Campos

Starring

Eliza Scanlen Robert Pattinson Tom Holland

Anticipation.

Stellar source material, stellar cast.

Enjoyment.

Ah. A “too many cooks” situation.

In Retrospect.

You’re better off sticking to the novel.

Antonio Campos’ star-jammed Southern potboiler fails to capture the poetic misery of Donald Ray Pollock’s source novel.

In a much-memed scene from the first season of True Detective, Matthew McConaughey’s beleaguered lawman Rust Cohle recalls that someone once told him, “Time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over again.” A similar thesis is central to Donald Ray Pollock’s 2011 novel ‘The Devil All the Time’: you can’t outrun fate, or the devil, no matter how far you drive or how much you pray.

In Antonio Campos’ adaptation, a cast of disparate saints and sinners across post-World War Two Ohio find their lives interlocking through a series of odd twists and turns. Pollock’s novel suggests a sort of Magnolia meets Flannery O’Connor providence, jumping through time and towns following gunslingers and murderers, preachers and crooked cops.

Campos has valiantly tried to emulate this, though for the sake of clarity it’s reduced to a linear timeline and subplots are moved around in order to try and make things easier for viewers unfamiliar with the source material. Certain threads are omitted altogether while superfluous ones are included, such as the local Sheriff being mixed up with small-time organised crime.

Much has been made of the film’s star-studded ensemble: Bill Skarsgård, Hayley Bennett, Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Sebastian Stan, Mia Wasikowska, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Harry Melling and Eliza Scanlen. Unfortunately this makes it quite difficult for anyone to really do much with their limited screentime, though Pattinson’s turn as paedophile preacher Preston Teagardin is the obvious highlight.

Dressed in a cornflower blue suit and affecting a Texan drawl, he’s never been more unnerving. Tom Holland looks suitably sullen as the film’s de facto protagonist Arvin Russell, a welcome change from his peppy Peter Parker day job. The women fair less well, however, existing only to inevitably die in some grisly fashion or another.

Another jarring detail is the narration, provided by the book’s author. While an omniscient narrator does feature in the source material, here it feels heavy-handed and distracting, and ends up giving the final film an unintended comic element that isn’t quite in keeping with the deathly dark happenings on screen. This is a great shame, because Pollock’s novel is a masterwork of misery, weaving together the lives of fascinating – if not disturbing – characters to build to a towering climax.

Campos’ version ties itself in knots while attempting to resolve all those plot lines within a two-hour runtime; it feels hurried and poorly-paced, with the second hour infinitely more enjoyable than the first. All the pieces are there: great cast, great source material, talent behind the scenes. But even the best of plans go awry, and what should have been a mediation on whether the son is doomed to repeat the sins of the father ends up being a dreary slog through the Ohio mud.

Perhaps the story would have had more to breathe as a glossy limited series. Campos has form, having done wonderful things with The Sinner, but this is how fate would have it – an overburdened tale of unremitting gloom that doesn’t allow us enough time with any character to feel upset when they meet their unfortunate demise.

Published 11 Sep 2020

Tags: Antonio Campos Bill Skarsgård Donald Ray Pollock Eliza Scanlen Mia Wasikowska Riley Keough Robert Pattinson The Devil All the Time Tom Holland

Anticipation.

Stellar source material, stellar cast.

Enjoyment.

Ah. A “too many cooks” situation.

In Retrospect.

You’re better off sticking to the novel.

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