Netflix’s latest mystery movie relies on a star-studded cast to captivate its audience. Based on Donald Ray Pollock’s book of the same name, The Devil All the Time employs actors Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, and Bill Skarsgård, to name a few. The film explores a web of characters who cause domino effects in each others’ lives. Many characters are devout Christians, and it is oftentimes their own faith that emboldens them to commit treacherous sins. The story winds through states and time, flashing forward and backward as it pleases.
Returning home from World War II and suffering from PTSD, Willard Russell (Skarsgård) finds comfort in his darling wife Charlotte (Haley Bennett), and they soon have a son, Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta). When Charlotte falls ill, Willard’s faith—and, arguably, his lack of knowledge about health care—leads him to falsely believe that if he and Arvin pray hard enough, they can save her life.
As Arvin grows up, learning from his father’s hands-on methods of conflict resolution, he becomes increasingly violent and hateful. Though he lives with his devout grandmother and stepsister, Arvin (played as an adult by Holland) cares little for the church. His life becomes more complicated, though, when the church gains a new preacher, Rev. Preston Teagardin (Pattinson). The film simultaneously delves into the lives of side characters like Roy Laferty (Harry Melling), Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke), and his wife Sandy (Riley Keough). Eventually, all of these tales come together to result in an even more difficult and twisted life for Arvin.
Like any mystery movie, The Devil All the Time does have its suspenseful moments. But the film fails to consistently keep the viewers on the edge of their seats—the constant jumps in time tend to interrupt the film’s flow. The plot feels so contrived that the viewer has no motivation to actually figure anything out. The film’s lack of chronology also makes it nearly impossible to feel a significant connection to anyone on screen, including the protagonist. There’s quite a disconnect between young Arvin and grown-up Arvin because of the way the plot leaps through time.
The film spoon-feeds the viewers so much information that they have no chance to form their own judgments of the characters. The story is narrated by Pollock himself. Unfortunately, this decision feels like a cheap way to provide exposition. Films that have been adapted from books are rarely successful, but an interesting part of these films is seeing how they tell the story with fewer opportunities for direct narration. The Devil All the Time essentially circumvents this problem by having the author himself explain what’s going on in a character’s mind. These moments distract from climactic scenes and detract from the actors’ task of bringing their characters to life.
What’s even more disappointing is the fact that the cast is completely capable of this task. Pattinson shines on screen as a young, haughty preacher with little-to-no morals. Melling also revamps his acting career with his role as a faith-crazed pastor. The actors could have easily succeeded—thrived, even—without any narration. The Devil All the Time is a byproduct of an industry where creators assume audiences can’t understand their work unless every plot point is hammered home.
For a film that tries desperately to get its message across, in the end, The Devil All the Time has no real thesis. Its exploration into how faith can corrupt is interesting, but it’s only enough to hold up the first half of the film. By the end of the movie, we want to see how Arvin is different, or how he can grow to be different, yet the last scene lets us down. The open-ended, let-the-viewer-decide conclusion is not enough to justify two hours of trying to understand Arvin and his struggles.
The Devil All the Time will be an entertaining ride for mystery lovers and a merely adequate movie for others. It’s worth watching for the cast, but the sequence and narration weigh the characters down without actually saying much about the film’s greater themes. If the audiobook-esque narration had been scrapped and director Antonio Campos had relied more on his cast, The Devil All the Time could have shone as a mystery movie. But instead, the movie lacks the best part of a real mystery movie: wondering what could possibly be going on inside a character’s head.
Featured image courtesy of Nine Stories Productions