‘The Devil All the Time’ confuses misery for profundity

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Grade: 1.5/5.0

Antonio Campos’ “The Devil All the Time,” adapted from a 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock, is a brutal, nihilistic Southern Gothic thriller with a star-studded cast and nothing interesting to say about its unabatedly depraved subject matter.

The unfocused story starts in the 1950s before taking a detour to the ’40s and eventually stumbling into the ’60s. Initially, “The Devil All the Time” centers on Willard (Bill Skarsgård), a traumatized World War II veteran who, during a brief stop in a rural Ohio town on the way home to West Virginia, falls for a cute waitress (Haley Bennett) in a typical love-at-first-sight scene that only works in romanticized period pieces.

However, “The Devil All the Time” deliberately discards such rose-tinted perceptions of a simpler, less cruel past. In the same diner, on the same day that Willard meets his future wife Charlotte, another waitress named Sandy (Riley Keough) meets her future husband, serial killer Carl (Jason Clarke). Sandy and Carl quickly become a mass-murdering necrophiliac power couple who pop up in vignettes peppered throughout the film. Sandy’s brother, crooked cop Lee, is also somehow tangentially related, but sorting out his connection to the story is not worth the immense effort of untangling the narrative from its needless nonchronological structure.

The overstuffed plot suggests that Campos and his brother, co-writer Paulo Campos, sought to keep Pollock’s book story largely intact. The result is a messy, confusing and surprisingly shallow series of lightly connected subplots with no cohesive larger picture. In an effort to tie it all together, Antonio Campos employs a voice-over, performed by Pollock himself. Pollock’s wry humor, however, doesn’t match the tone of the material and most of its excessive exposition is already obvious.

Violence and Christianity are repeatedly intertwined in “The Devil All the Time,” but if the early scenes suggest that the film is interested in exploring why its characters enact evil, this myth is soon dispelled. Upon the first whisper of a soldier backstory, Campos indulges in the opportunity for a gruesome flashback, resulting in what feels like little more than an excuse for a dreary war scene. Also stuffed into the first third of the film is the ill-fated story of a guileless young woman (Mia Wasikowska) who inexplicably marries a delusional, psychopathic preacher and leaves behind an infant daughter named Lenora.

When pedophilic preacher Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) preys on the now teenaged Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), the story loses interest in her and instead follows her adoptive brother Arvin’s (Tom Holland) quest for revenge. Pattinson is the only cast member who appears aware that he’s in a tryhard hillbilly “Pulp Fiction,” playing his character as the human embodiment of sleaze. The deliberate lack of any charm, however, makes Teagardin totally unbelievable in the rest of the film’s milieu.

Despite their excellent performers, none of the film’s female characters amount to anything more than narrative punching bags, providing motivation for the men. Charlotte is only important to the story because of the impact of her failing health on Willard’s obsessive piety, and Lenora is only seen as a victim and pawn in Arvin’s story. While Arvin inherited his father Willard’s quiet masculine rage, Campos suggests that Lenora inherited her mother’s penchant for being targeted by psychos. Likewise, though Keough artfully conveys remorse in Sandy’s complicity with Carl, “The Devil All the Time” is just as uninterested in exploring Sandy’s humanity as it is in treating Lenora’s character with nuance. 

“The Devil All the Time” constantly revels in sadistic violence for no other reason than to cement the idea that humans are capable of great evil. As the film chugs along, its unrelatable characters are routinely fed into a meat grinder of a plot, while their piling misfortunes play out like a Charlie Chaplin routine from hell stretched to 138 minutes.

The film’s bloated runtime doesn’t correlate to more robust storytelling. “The Devil All the Time” has no deeper insight into the characters’ capacity for violence or the impact of that violence on their lives. Each shocking act is treated with emotional distance, muting any resonance. Instead of creating a tense atmosphere of dread, the film is blatantly inflated to allow enough screen time for each member of its distractingly recognizable cast, all without regard for how relentless a viewing experience it is.

Contact Neil Haeems at [email protected].