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Non-Review Review: The Devil All the Time

The Devil All the Time demonstrates that the adjective “novelistic” isn’t always a compliment.

Writer and director Antonio Campos is clearly aiming for an epic sweep to The Devil All the Time. The film unfolds over the course of several decades, following several intersecting lives in rural Ohio in the space between the end of the Second World War and the height of the Vietnam War. This is a tale that spans generations, with an impressive density. Small characters get huge arcs, dramatic twists hinge on chance encounters, and a large amount of the film’s plot is delivered by way of folksy omniscient narration.

Holland of the Free?

It is easier to admire The Devil All the Time than it is to appreciate it. Campos has drawn together a formidable cast to tell a story that explores a host of big ideas about small town life. The Devil All the Time clearly aspires to be a piercing study of religion, sex and violence in the American northeast. The film maintains an impressive atmosphere, in large part due to Campos’ moody direction and the work of Lol Crawley and the rumbling soundtrack from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.

However, nothing in The Devil All the Time has room to breath. There are so many elements competing for narrative space that even films two-hours-and-twenty-minute runtime feels overstuffed. Characters are never allowed to stew or develop in a way that a story like this demands, instead reducing the movie to a series of plot points and thematic observations delivered in a rich and moody manner, but without any real substance to bind them all together.

Book ‘im.

In terms of recent festival-circuit releases, The Devil All the Time most overtly recalls Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. Like The Place Beyond the PinesThe Devil All the Time is a sweeping generational study of violence and consequence set against the backdrop of rural America. It is a story about loss and anger, and fate and nature. It’s a big and ambitious picture, a film that attempts to update the old-fashioned cinematic melodramas of the studio era by infusing them with a more grounded and cynical contemporary indie aesthetic.

It is genuinely fascinating to watch what The Devil All the Time is trying to do. It is attempting to offer something equivalent to slowly developing photograph of a particular American ideal. It is no coincidence that one of the film’s many characters is Carl Henderson, a photographer who is obsessed with snapping pictures that capture the extremes and the boundaries of both life and death. In its own weird way, that seems to be what The Devil All the Time is attempting, to offer an immersive mood piece about a particular vision of American identity.

This attempt at a modern epic is perhaps reflected by a glimpse at the cast list. Campos has populated the periphery of the film with a selection of indie darlings and character actors, respected screen veterans that are instantly recognisable to anybody who has been watching the prestige television and arthouse fare – Jason Clarke, Riley Keough, Harry Melling, Mia Waikowska, Eliza Scanlon. However, key narrative roles are reserved for actors better known for their mainstream and franchise work, like Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Sebastian Stan and Bill Skarsgård.

While Tom Holland has done prestigious television like Wolf Hall and smaller films like The Lost City of Z and Pilgrimage, there is a sense in which The Devil All the Time is being positioned as something of a potential breakout role for a young actor who is still primarily associated with films like Spider-Man: Homecoming or Avengers: Infinity War. On the other end of the spectrum, The Devil All the Time arrives at a point where Robert Pattinson is emerging from his independent cinema phase and re-embracing blockbusters with TENET and The Batman.

Ohi, Tom.

The effect of all of this is to suggest an interesting fusion of an older style of Hollywood production and something a little more independent. A lot has been written about how fame and celebrity has changed in the past few decades, but the cast list of The Devil All the Time offers a glimpse of what a modern star-studded spectacular might look like. Indeed, as with a lot of Pattinson’s independent cinema work, it is interesting to wonder what fans of Holland’s work in films like Homecoming will make of The Devil All the Time.

While this is fascinating in an abstract sense, most of the impressive cast in The Devil All the Time seem lost and disoriented by the material. The film casts Bill Skarsgård and Tom Holland as father and son, with Skarsgård effectively serving as protagonist for the movie’s first act. However, given that the general tone of The Devil All the Time demands that its characters brood and sulk, this structural choice does few favours for Holland. Skarsgård is much more convincing as a troubled, haunted and violent man than Holland, which makes the switch to Holland jarring.

A killer couple…

Stan and Pattinson treat their roles in The Devil All the Time as an excuse to indulge their hammier impulses. It is notable that the two superhero actors play their roles with visible paunches, which is visual shorthand for “really acting.” Pattinson fares better than Stan. Indeed, Pattinson is ageing quite nicely into a scenery-chewing character actor, a detail confirmed with his memorable supporting turn in TENET. Cast as a predatory preacher, Pattinson offers something close to a cartoon – but a cartoon that breathes a little life into the film around him.

To be fair, it’s the star power that somewhat unbalance The Devil All the Time. It’s notable that many of the stronger cast members – like Eliza Scanlon and Mia Wasikowska – seem like their performances have been pared down in the edit to make room for the bigger names on the call sheet. There is a sense in which The Devil All the Time feels very compressed for the sweep that it is trying to embrace – The Place Beyond the Pines is only two minutes longer, but somehow feels like a much bigger film.

Keeping the faith.

There are so many actors and characters fighting for space in The Devil All the Time that none of them get any room to breathe. Holland is not yet an expert cinematic brooder, but that is only a problem because that is all that The Devil All the Time has time to ask of him. Indeed, the third act of The Devil All the Time should be a grand tragedy as the various lives documented in the previous two hours start colliding, but it instead feels like a movie working through a character checklist and cast sorting algorithm.

This problem carries over to the core themes. The Devil All the Time seeks to explore a certain type of small-town life in America, unfolding largely within the boundaries of the town of “Knockemstiff.” Campos’ preoccupations are the warped religious and sexual values of the repressed mid-century America, the manner in which beliefs can be twisted and manipulated, and the way in which violence and anger are ingrained in young men in ways that are hard to escape.

It is no coincidence that the film is a multi-generational story sandwiched between the end of the Second World War and the start of the Vietnam War. The Devil All the Time is a story about cycles of abuse and predation, sometimes take the concept to absurdly melodramatic extremes – this is a story where murderers are often themselves murdered by serial killers, in a strange sorting algorithm of human violence. Campos has a strong eye for haunting imagery, especially when invoking the crucifixion. The Devil All the Time hews quite close to horror at certain points.

However, the script itself is broad to the point of cliché, and constantly worried that the audience might miss its commentary on human nature. At one point, as its lead character contemplates enlisting to serve overseas, the narrator explains, “He didn’t want to end up in a war like his father. But he was good at fightin’, and maybe that’s where he belonged.” At another point, Carl muses of the local community, “Probably didn’t change much. Little towns never do.” Sheriff Bodecker imparts words of wisdom to a shocked child, “Some people were born so that they could be buried.”

Keep out of Preach of school children…

To be fair, a lot of this heavy-handedness is part of the appeal. The Devil All the Time aspires to an old-fashioned sort of melodrama, and the heavy layering of pretty straightforward themes through blunt dialogue is clearly a stylistic choice. However, the problem with The Devil All the Time is that there is little of substance between these pseudo-profound contemplations of the existence. There is so much going on that there is simply no room to explore or mine these ideas in any meaningful way.

Watching The Devil All the Time, it often seems that this heavy slice of American  Gothic might have worked better on television or in a novel, in forms that would allow its characters and themes room to percolate and develop beyond the broad strokes in the final cut. Still, it’s hard not to admire the film’s ambition. Like The Place Beyond the Pines, this is a film aiming for epic sweep. It doesn’t quite get there, but it certainly makes an effort.

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