“Got time for a sinner?”
It’s a question Arvin Russell (Tom Holland) poses to a morally bankrupt preacher (Robert Pattinson) a little over halfway through The Devil All the Time. But it also seems to be the question that writer/director Antonio Campos repeatedly asks his audience throughout his wide-ranging, often bloated tribute to Southern Gothic literature and noir.
Adapted from Donald Ray Pollock’s novel of the same name—and co-written for the screen by Campos’s brother Paulo—The Devil All the Time follows a compelling ensemble of characters in southern Ohio and West Virginia grappling with the limits of faith in the aftermath of World War II. Arvin’s father, Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård), is a traumatized veteran who leaves his son with the lesson of violence and retribution—both as a way to cleanse people of sin and as a faulty coping mechanism. Carl and Sandy Henderson (Jason Clarke, Riley Keough) are an unconventional team of serial killers who hop from one motel to the next, interspersed through the narrative while evading Sandy’s corrupt sheriff brother (Sebastian Stan).
At the crux of The Devil All the Time is Arvin, whose life is laid out to the film’s audience nearly in its totality. Arvin looks the part of a hero—handsome, tragically orphaned, and consumed by the need to do what is right and holy—but given the shallow morality of any character this film chooses to include in its frame, it’s hard to say if there is any protagonist at all. Holland, in easily the most mature role of his career so far, handles this complicated duality with grace—and is quite convincing as a man compelled by the unsavory things he has turned to for guidance.
The film’s real star, however, is Pattinson as the sinister-yet-soft-voiced Reverend Preston Teagardin, who introduces himself via a domineering, overtly-righteous sermon that could only be given by someone with something incredibly blasphemous to hide. Teagardin’s devotion to faith is loosely tethered at best, yet he yields it—and his authority as a respected figure in the community—in order to terrorize young women. Unfortunately, due to the film’s vast ensemble, Pattinson spends the vast majority of the runtime underutilized.
The sheer scope of The Devil All the Time seems to be where it starts to fall apart. As a filmmaker, Campos has been most successful when telling extremely focused character studies—from Christine in 2016, to Simon Killer in 2012, and Afterschool in 2008. The Devil All the Time is his most ambitious project in terms of scale—ruminating on dense and intersecting themes of religion, corruption, trauma, and violence—but he tends to lose himself and his focus somewhere in the deep end.
Given Campos’s proclaimed love for the source material, The Devil All the Time largely plays out like a faithful adaptation—which may be great for the ever-vocal “the book was better” crowd—but it forgoes any sense of invention or form when translating the story for a very different medium. The novel’s author even lends his voice to the film’s dull and near-constant narration, giving the film an odd audiobook quality.
What keeps the viewer tuned into the prolonged rigmarole that is The Devil All the Time are its stellar performances. Pattinson and Holland are both commanding, as are Keough and Skarsgård in their own right. But the film often feels too uninspired and unfocused for its own good. There are instances of heart and significance scattered throughout the film, but it too often gives into its wandering nature and stops itself from ever making a lasting impression. v