Nobody's an Angel in The Devil All the Time

Let’s face it—we probably won’t be back in theaters for a while (at least, we probably shouldn’t). Thankfully, Netflix has us covered with this star-studded psychological thriller. Directed by Antonio Campos, The Devil All The Time follows the lives of a handful of unfortunate characters in southern Ohio and West Virginia during the 1950s and ‘60s. In an effort to spare you from spoilers, I can’t really introduce you to the intricacies of each one, but generally, the story follows the life of Arvin (Tom Holland), an orphan with good intentions but violent tendencies. Along the way, we meet a traumatized veteran, a delusional preacher, a flamboyant reverend who, ironically, preaches about delusions, and a couple of necrophiliac photographers with a hankering for hitchhikers, among other “no-good sons of bitches.” The film was adapted from Donald Ray Pollock’s novel of the same name, and luckily we get to hear the author’s voice as the narrator, which I believe is a brilliant choice given the theme of the story, but I’ll elaborate on that later.

I grew up in southern West Virginia, where The Devil All the Time is partially set. It’s been a while since I’ve seen media representation of my area that didn’t take the easy route and stereotype us as hillbillies, criminals, or drug addicts. Hell, I’m just glad they didn’t lump us in with the rest of the South. I didn’t expect to see pieces of my own life and upbringing in this film at all, and it’s these little things that make this movie great: the accents (which, for a largely British cast, were surprisingly authentic), the costumes, the set dressing, the soundtrack (Pokey LaFarge, a folk musician who plays Theodore, is a highlight), and the spotlight on the way of life in the religious south, which are things you don’t really see if you’re not from the area. If you’re not yet familiar with the Southern Gothic genre, this is a great movie to acquaint you with it. Secrets, religion, death, crime, and irony are major themes that, mixed with a rural southern setting, create a bleak and tragically dark world that those of us who live there understand more than most. I’m not saying West Virginia (or even Ohio) is a treacherous and twisted place, but rather that the movie’s subtle details and display of local lifestyles feel familiar to me, in the same way the setting is so important in other films, like the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (and come to think of it, this did sort of feel like a Coen Brothers movie, if you took out all the funny parts and made it really sad the whole time). While it may seem incomprehensible and alien to some at first, the film’s dedication to detail in its setting gives us such valuable insight into why the characters think and act the ways they do. They did their research, and it paid off.

Plot-wise, this movie is incredibly interconnected, something we don’t fully comprehend the inner workings of until the last act. Central themes of faith, sin, mercy, and death are woven throughout the film, moments at a time. The narrator, as I noted earlier, actually wrote the book, and his omniscient presence is sort of God-like, which, given the religious overtones of the film, just makes sense. Seemingly benign and inconsequential actions set the stage for all of the dominoes to fall into place. Whether this is all coincidence or divine intervention is left to the viewer to decide.

All the way back in 2018, when The Devil All The Time was announced, it started to generate hype based mostly around its all-star cast: Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, and Bill Skarsgård—what’s not to love? At first, there were rumors of Chris Evans joining the cast, but scheduling conflicts led him to drop and recommend Sebastian Stan, who we all know as Bucky Barnes in like, half of the Marvel movies. And it’s a good thing he did; Stan did an amazing job as Lee Bodecker, a small-town sheriff who literally looks like every cop I’ve ever seen. Eliza Scanlen, who played Lenora, Arvin’s stepsister, is worth mentioning as well. She’s someone to watch for, especially after her roles in the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects (another Southern Gothic tale) and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. I would dare to say that most people who decided to watch this movie didn’t watch for the plot; we all clicked on the thumbnail because we knew Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson were in it, and they were gonna try out some fun new accents. Pattinson, who we knew would be a standout as Preston Teagardin, exceeded expectations and quickly became my favorite character to watch. He was the villain you love to hate, with a weird high-pitched accent you can’t help but listen to. Unsurprisingly, the cast was the greatest aspect of this movie. The cinematography was pretty good, too; there were some really cool shots, and the color grading, while nothing too flashy, definitely helped flesh out the tone of the film. But while the plot was engaging enough, there was a lot left to be desired, and the Pulp Fiction-esque ending could have been done differently.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved this movie. But I do have to acknowledge that it is definitely not for everyone. Both times I watched this movie, I watched with others, and both times everyone else pretty much tapped out about halfway through. It’s over two hours long, it's intentionally uncomfortable, and it has zero comic relief—I get it. But to me, and a few others I’ve talked to, it’s something worth watching. It may not be the best movie critically, but the cast really carried it through to a place of semi-greatness. I wouldn’t be that surprised if we saw a couple of Oscar nods to the film, likely in the acting categories. I think Netflix wanted this movie to be too many things; it had elements of many great films in it that could have worked out if they weren’t all employed at once. It’s possible that this film was supposed to be an enlightening study in tragedy and rural life, but it lacks empathy and ends up feeling like a pointless vignette, with no real resolution or meaning. The ending is ambiguous, in a way that feels more like the author didn’t know how to end the story, and less like we have the freedom of interpretation. After all of that gruesome misfortune, is it too much to ask for a happy ending? It doesn’t live up to the standard it set for itself, but that’s okay. You’ll get there one day, Netflix.

If you want to see Holland and Pattinson in roles like never before, or if you, for some reason, enjoy really tragic and traumatizing stories, then it’s worth spending an evening in quarantine on The Devil All the Time.