A game of two halves, only just making it to a 6 instead of a 5 due to what it gets right being really fricking important. The Devil All The Time is a well shot and well acted star-studded mess of a netflix movie that excites, disturbs and invokes guilty laughter; as often as it perplexes, frustrates and borderline alienates. I’ve had to stop and really think hard about how I plan on summarising the plot to you because of just how riddled with personality disorders the whole first hour seems afflicted by. It follows the life of a young man, played predominantly by Tom Holland, as he grows and is shaped by the people around him in his small southern US home town; including his deeply troubled religious father, an amoral and manipulative preacher and even a pair of romantically involved serial killers with a love of photography.
Yes, that should do it.
Unfortunately, all of this is presented as if it were a blended smoothy and you have to guess which fruit you can taste every time a shredded piece enters your fat gob. It’s quite a while before Tom Holland turns up, IMDB estimates around 46 minutes, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that on its own, it’s just that the story leading up to the film’s comfy settling into his reveal as the main lead is counterintuitively difficult to navigate.
It juggles introducing God-knows how many characters with jumping back and forth through time every now and again, and the result is a narrative that requires a lot of hard work to keep up with. You’re trying to get to grips with the thing and get what its deal is all about so you can get on with the journey, but it’s like a bad pilot episode of a TV show in which you have no idea who’s the main character and who’s just gonna be dead soon. And while the film is watchable, focusing up eventually, I could do little more by the end than shrug and flatly say “OK”.
Now, as I said before, the acting is splendid, Tom Holland proves pleasantly capable of shaking his image as Spider-Man and actually being an actor. The Battinson is charmingly slimy and despicable, continuing his excellent settlement into different and unusual roles (see also High Life, Good Time and The King). Jason Clarke and Riley Keough play the serial killing couple, Clarke being a good blend of confident psychopath and unhinged danger to himself and others, while Keough is more haunted by her actions, still a no-gooder; but interestingly remorseful nevertheless. And Pennywise himself, Bill Skarsgård, steals the show as Holland’s increasingly troubled and religion-dependant father.
I also can’t help but give mention to the cinematography, because, while Netflix originals are primarily shot digitally, this is shot on film. Beautiful, grainy and vibrant 35mm that I would hate for Netflix to abandon due to the film not getting enough love; you know what these executives are like. So I have to say: cinematography’s great, well done guys; definitely keep it up! The film is definitely worth recommending based on these positives, it’s competent and functions well enough; the violence too is very arresting as are its genuinely intelligent themes on religious insanity and gross abuse of power. I have a soft spot for subtext like that so: automatic plus.
But if this were needlework: it would be a near disaster. Sebastian Stan’s character barely has any relevance until the climax, and his inclusion feels necessary only to give the narrative an ending that feels like it actually means something. Or rather *endings*. The film wraps up about three times before actually doing so, remembering at the last minute that certain threads still need to be tied down, and maybe if I didn’t feel the structure was so messy all the way through then I might feel differently. Mia Wasikowska shares a similar fate to Stan, showing up for all of five minutes before leaving you wondering why the whole thing feels so damned convoluted and overstuffed within an inch of its life.
I was never bored watching The Devil All The Time, I admired its no-bullshit themes enough to hate that I don’t like it more. And, as I keep telling you, it looks great and the acting can’t be faulted; the narration by Donald Ray Pollock (who wrote the book the film is based on) especially seemed like a misjudgment at first but soon became one of the film’s standout qualities. I’m just left perplexed at the structure for being so jim-jam-jumbled, the flow just isn’t smooth or user friendly and the very fact that I wanted to stay interested and didn’t get bored provides an even greater mystery. It’s like a centipede with noticeably uneven body segments in a child’s drawing, and the child is blind… somehow knowing what a centipede looks like… and drunk!
I feel like I’m making it sound worse than it is so: sure, it’s worth a watch, it’s not entirely unrewarding, there’s a number of cathartic and well executed sequences to call the experience worthwhile enough. Just, for the love of Satan, don’t watch it just for one of the cast members, odds are you’ll likely be disappointed given how thinly shared out everyone’s screen time is. So it has problems galore in the narrative department but it does well enough elsewhere that I can’t help but give it an aggressively reserved recommendation. The devil all the time? Rather the devil… some of the time.