By: Chris Narine
When the world is on fire, whom do we turn to?
Antonio Campos’ latest picture is one that wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve. Echoes of PTA, Sam Mendes, Derek Cianfrance, and especially the Coens are all to be found here; as they’re all in service of an unforgettable picture that’s hellbent on shaking you up with its striking imagery. The world that Campos has built here is cold, brutal and nihilistic, one where any glimmer of hope or betterment feels few and far between the relentless wrath and treachery that exist within a repeated history of violence.
Our story opens with Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), a soldier plagued with PTSD, whom after coming home to his family finds himself under the charm of the delightful Charlotte (Haley Bennett). Eventually, they marry and have a son named Arvin (played by Michael Banks Repeta as a child, and later on Tom Holland as a young adult). After a series of rather unfortunate circumstances, we’re thrust into a narrative that introduces us to a plethora of characters filled to the brim with oddball personality and rather often, deranged tendencies. There’s a serial killer couple (played by Jason Clarke & Riley Keough), a corrupt sheriff (Sebastian Stan), and two preachers (Robert Pattinson & Harry Melling) who’s positions of faith lead them to disturbing and corrupted places.
Some will argue that perhaps there’s simply too much going on in “The Devil All the Time”, but I’d argue that the rather packed narrative is what ultimately makes things come full circle by the time this story comes to a close. There’s themes of religious fanaticism, corruption, and the mere notion of inherited sin, and through each and every single character explored here, whether our time spent with them is brief or elongated, we notice the toxic patterns that they have all adapted to as a result of being byproducts of the environment in which they inhabit.
With a script that evokes the very best qualities of a top-tier Flannery O’Connor story, as well as a cheeky narration done by the author of the book that it’s based on, it’s hard to pinpoint one specific element of “The Devil All the Time” that stands out from the other. Whether it be the biting tension that Campos builds with his eerie direction, the haunting cinematography from Lol Crawley, or the gorgeous editing that transitions between storylines so seamlessly, there’s so much to love here. But of course, with an ensemble this massive, it’s difficult to not bring up how perfect the cast is for this thing, as the work they bring is beyond admirable for this material.
Tom Holland is on fire here, leading the way with a performance unlike anything he’s done before, and bringing so much life and personality to the character of Arvin. It’s one hell of an arc he has here, and Holland truly commands the screen with his work here. Backing him is a fantastic supporting cast, with electric turns to be found everywhere. Bill Skarsgård effectively channels the same straight-faced eccentricities that have made Michael Shannon such a prolific character actor, while both Robert Pattinson and Harry Melling turn in terrifying work as the very different, but extremely twisted preachers, with Pattinson in particular delivering one of his finest performances to date, worthy of Best Supporting Actor consideration.
With an ensemble this large, certain characters are bound to feel like an afterthought, but every performance here feels fine tuned and engaged into the sinister world that Campos has built, and I especially enjoyed the brief, but thoroughly effective turns from Riley Keough, Eliza Scanlan, and Sebastian Stan.
The cinematic pleasures that are on display aside, there’s a particular notion about this picture that moved me. With the character of Arvin, who’s familial history leaves him scarred as the sins of the father have finally reigned down upon him. It leaves us with a question, what do we when a cycle of toxicity clouds our surroundings? Do we act like Arvin, and do our best to combat it? Or do we seek peace and our best to dismiss it entirely? Who do we turn to, when the notion of goodness, of purity, appear contaminated by the corruption of our world? It’s questions like these that “The Devil All the Time” raise with nuance, and the stakes raised amid the violent imagery of the film feel essential. Perhaps there’s no definitive answer to any of the questions, but it’s the film’s final moments that feel reflective of them; for instead of obtaining a proper answer immediately, we can just rest assured knowing that eventually, no matter how long it may take, the burdens in which we wrestle with shall reach their conclusion.