The Devil All the Time. It’s a provocative title — one that makes you wonder: will we immediately learn its meaning, or must we deduce its implications as the film nears its resolution?
Unfortunately, it is the former, as the narrator tells us that Willard Russell (Ben Skarsgård) was “fighting the Devil all the time” in the first minutes of the film. Perhaps this “tell first, show later” approach is the film’s most glaring weakness.
Let’s first sum it up: after experiencing repeated trauma, country-side orphan Arvin Russell (Tom Holland) makes a momentous decision that crosses his path with an ensemble of sinners. Everyone is related somehow, and the common thread that links their fates is an overzealous attachment to Christ. In Knockemstiff, life is supposed to revolve around God all the time. For this ragtag group, it’s the Devil instead.
The film has its strengths. The set design and costume design transports us convincingly to 1950s-60s rural America, and the cast delivers solid performances against this backdrop. Tom Holland demonstrates a maturity beyond that of our friendly neighborhood Spiderman, and Robert Pattinson — even in the laughably shrill voice he picked up from Devil knows where— delivers a captivating performance as an unsurprisingly perverse preacher.
If the film does succeed at something, it is in making me think, “I am so glad I did not grow up in a place like Knockemstiff.” There is a seeming pointlessness to these people’s lives, and the film includes all the requisite components of becoming a haunting exploration of human existence.
Unfortunately, they were not pieced together. It wasn’t just the characters that I pitied — I also felt sorry for the people who sat through this film. At times I wondered whether it was the characters’ lives that felt pointless or the portrayal of their lives that turned “extraordinary” into too much of both “extra” and “ordinary.” At times verging on campy shock-porn, the events are so gratuitous, yet so bland.
Perhaps the worst part about the film is its reliance on an omniscient narrator who reveals every thrill before any suspense is built. Each point is made too early, and the film then spends too long getting back to it.
Here’s a spoiler alert for those who, for some reason, still want to watch this film. I need to call out some egregious uses of narration that totally spoiled the film’s intrigue.
Why, for example, did the voice tangentially reveal the death of Helen (Mia Wasikowska), only to return to this day 30 minutes later to visually reiterate what we already know?
“Though she didn’t know it, she’d never see Lenora again. Seven years later, they found Helen’s body buried in the woods.”
Or how about Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandie (Riley Keough)? There was so much potential in first portraying them as a quirky couple that loved photography before peeling back the layers to reveal the homicidal nature of their artwork. Why did the narrator have to reveal in the first minutes of the film that they eventually turn into such predators?
“In the years to come, Carl would call Sandie ‘the bait,’ and she called him ‘the shooter.’ And they both called their victims ‘the models’”
Of course, not everything is spoiled, and there is a certain satisfaction in seeing how these characters’ paths all intersect in the story’s final arc. But it’s too little too late, and the battle I fought to make it through the first 90 minutes didn’t feel worth the lukewarm success of the latter 45.
The best films show. Other films tell, and they still turn out decent. The Devil All the Time tells — then shows it all anyway. If you’re going to show me what happens, then don’t first spoil it for me via narration. If you’re going to use a narrator, you might as well have him fill in gaps while focusing on the good stuff. Maybe then, I could have wasted less than 2 hours and 16 minutes on watching this movie. Maybe I could have even enjoyed it.