Novel to film adaptations are a relentless breed in Hollywood, but all literary transitions are not built equally. Some films enhance their material with a newfound voice and visceral presentation, while others sink under the weight of their storied reputation. Netflix’s latest high-profile endeavor The Devil All the Time takes a grand home run swing with its jam-packed narrative. While the film doesn’t always make contact, it’s dour descent into religion’s self-serving attitudes renders an earnest mess of a movie.
There’s a lot of threads to untangle here, almost too many to make up a simple plot description. Adapted from Donald Ray Pollock’s novel (he also serves as the story’s narrator), the film follows a few interconnected communities in the wake of World War II. Told through different generations, the central narrative follows Arvin (Tom Holland), who after being orphaned by his parents (played by Haley Bennett and Bill Skarsgard), looks to right the wrongs of the town’s sinister preacher Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson).
That doesn’t include a couple of traveling serial killers (played by Jason Clarke and Riley Keough), a corrupt cop (Sebastian Stan), and a mother/daughter duo entrenched by the allures of religion (Mia Wasikowska and Eliza Scanlan). Writer/director Antonio Campos bites off a massive amount of material, ambitiously trying to spin several narrative conceits simultaneously. Not all of these threads work as well as they should, with some cannibalizing the others during the film’s two and a half-hour window. The plotlines following Clarke, Keough, and Stan particularly underwhelm, with their abbreviated dynamics lacking the dimension to enhance the narrative.
Campos’ effort may be rigid in its imperfect form, but his assured ability shines throughout this engrossing experience. From jump street, the Christine director sets a finite sense of mood that permeates into each arch, delving down into the grimy mucky-muck of this dog-eat-dog world. His craftsmanship keeps things compelling even when the material isn’t up to snuff, seamlessly blending the multi-generational timeline while exhibiting filmmaking prowess with his visual sensibility (DOP Lol Crawley shoots the film with a sweaty intimacy that feels tailor-made for the material).
The Devil All the Time also registers pertinent ruminations on religion’s powerful grasp upon its subjects. Campos’ conveys the material’s deft observations on religion’s multi-faceted nature, with the platform often serving as a supportive crux for lonely souls or an altruistic veneer for despicable characters to latch onto. The dramatic meat of the material gives its respective stars a lot to work with, as Tom Holland delivers one of his finest performances to date as the steely-eyed Arvin. Bill Skarsgaard, Eliza Scanlan, and Robert Pattinson also offer assured performances, with Pattinson continuing to demonstrate his unhinged dedication to even the hammiest of roles.
There’s a lot to appreciate about The Devil All the Time, yet the film rarely lets viewers unpack its conceits without some handholding. Pollock’s narration is often overutilized, explaining dynamics with a clumsy obviousness that lessens the impact. I understand the desire to keep the novel’s descriptive voice intact, but this choice often comes at a cost of the film’s moody sensibility.
While the film’s transition to the screen comes with some blemishes, The Devil All the Time works as a bleak character study packed with searing moments.
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