Fathers can pass a lot of things down to their sons: the love of a local sports team, good genes for height or a large inheritance.
But it’s two wildly differing concepts – violence and religious faith – that boldly intersect in writer/director Antonio Campos’s latest film, a sprawling tale of wolves in sheep’s clothing where the purity of both saints and sinners is never fully assured.
Based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Donald Kay Pollack, The Devil All The Time is a multigenerational Gothic noir thriller set on the border between Ohio and West Virginia from the 1940s through the 1960s. The film skips its way up and down the timeline but primarily focuses on a reserved young man named Arvin and how his relationship with his father, a World War II veteran, came to shape his life and the violent destiny of a wide array of characters.
Much will be made about how far away Arvin is from the Spider-Man character Tom Holland is most famous for, but what won’t be talked about enough is just how remarkably the British actor melts into the role with a subdued calm that masks brutal inner turmoil.
It’s one thing to be a master of broad facial expressions – and Holland has proved with his superhero career that he is just that – but it’s quite another to reveal so much while moving so little. Holland feels relentlessly tense in his cheekbones in a way that allows his eyes to slowly reveal Arvin’s inner monologue for his most compelling performance to date.
From the moment he appears on screen, Robert Pattinson is mesmerizing to watch as a preacher who uses his position for nefarious purposes. Pattinson imbues Preston Teagardin with a menacing, yet seductive charm that pushes audiences away only to draw them in closer.
A character actor thrust into the limelight with the Twilight films and the upcoming Batman reboot, Pattinson creates a wholly unique persona in Teagardin, a man who seems completely out of place leading a rural church but intoxicates everyone around him with his persuasive soliloquies.
What truly makes this film feel special is the strength of its ensemble cast from It star Bill Skarsgård as a troubled World War II veteran to Mia Waskiowska and Eliza Scanlen as a mother and daughter both taken by silver-tongued preachers with questionable motives.
But because the film tries to do so much and be incredibly faithful to the original novel, character development becomes thin for secondary roles like Jason Clarke and Riley Keough’s travelling serial killers or Sebastian Stan’s corrupt sheriff.
Devil doesn’t really take off until Holland’s first appearance on screen over 40 minutes in, nor does it truly shine before Pattinson’s initial crooked smile several scenes later. Campos’s film is highly rewarding for those who stay with it, but the feature becomes a grind for the first hour.
Visually, Devil showcases its rural, mid-century setting with a panoramic palette of pale colors marred with deep off-black hues shot on 35mm film by cinematographer Lol Crawley.
It’s rarely more apparent that Devil is adapting a novel than in the film’s use of narration to set the mood of scenes and reveal characters’ inner thoughts to the audience without other dialogue. Campos makes the outstanding choice of using the book’s author to give the narration throughout with Pollock perfectly capturing the tone in a supporting way that doesn’t distract from the overall feature but makes Devil a visual novel in both good and bad ways.
While there are some gruesome moments, the film puts more weight into the lead up and aftermath of its violence than on the actual acts themselves. Campos restrains the impulse to overly glorify the bloody nature of his film, dealing rather with the ramifications of individuals’ actions.
Purchased by Netflix as a potential awards contender, Devil doesn’t really seem to have the legs to hold up over a long campaign season like Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods.
The strong acting performances – especially a layered turn from Holland unlike anything the young actor has shown before – make The Devil All The Time an interesting and thought provoking crime thriller for those willing to stay with the lengthy setup and winding narrative structure.