THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020) – Strong Cast Lifts Bleak Drama

the devil all the time

If you like your movies dark and dreary, then THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (202), a new flick on Netflix about some very unsavory people, is the film for you!

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME tells the sprawling tale of various characters and how their lives connect between two states, Ohio and West Virginia, over the course of three decades, from the 1940s through the 1960s. With its near perfect narrative style, the film jumps back and forth through time as it tells its story of mostly awful people whose acts directly impact those who aren’t so awful. It provides a bleak portrait of humanity, especially in the context of the dangers of extreme religious beliefs, and with a running time of two hours and eighteen minutes, it can be difficult to sit through.

But it does have a first-rate cast which certainly helps.

Willard (Bill Skarsgard) returns home from World War II a scarred man. On his way to his West Virginia home, he stops at a diner in Ohio where he meets a waitress, Charlotte (Haley Bennett). The two fall in love and eventually get married and have a son, Arvin. When Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta) is nine years-old, tragedy strikes as his mom Charlotte is diagnosed with cancer. Willard takes his religious beliefs to the extreme in an effort to save his wife, and when she still dies, he’s makes yet another tragic decision, scarring his son Arvin’s life in the process.

The bulk of the story takes place several years later, with Arvin (Tom Holland) now a young adult looking after his step-sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) who has a tragic back story of her own. And the tragedies don’t stop there, as a sinister preacher Reverend Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson) arrives in town and sets his unsavory sights on the young and impressionable Lenora.

Meanwhile, back in Ohio, Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy (Riley Keough) are a pair of serial killers who have been at it and getting away with their crimes for twenty years, crimes that have directly impacted the lives of Arvin and Lenora, even though they don’t know it. Sandy’s brother Deputy Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) while he tries to look after his sister, more often than not, simply looks the other way.

So, you have serial killers, murder, sexual abuse, rape— you get the idea. It all makes for a long two and a half hours. That being said, for the most part, I liked THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME. I can’t say I enjoyed a story like this, but it still works. Its title says it all. Most of these folks are trying to be religious, but looking at things from their perspective, God is nowhere. Instead, the devil is everywhere, all the time. Looking at it from a nonreligious persepective, it’s simply this: bad things happen to everyone, and if you’re going to rely solely on faith in God you’re barking up the wrong tree. More often than not, you need to take action on your own.

It’s a compelling if not overly bleak screenplay by director Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos, based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock, who also provides the effective voice-over narration. The characters are all fleshed out nicely, the story laid out in an understandable fashion even as it jumps around in time, and the conflicts are all rather horrifying and tragic. The dialogue is first-rate as well. The only problem is it is dark, and as such, difficult to get through.

Antonio Campos does well with the directing duties. He captures the look and feel of all three decades successfully. The photography is on par with a major theatrical release. The one issue is pacing, as it is slow and deliberate throughout, and even though some truly horrible things happen throughout the story, it doesn’t necessarily translate into rising suspense or a major climax. The plot does come to a head by film’s end, but even as it does so, the emotion remains the same: bleak, bleak, and more bleak.

The cast is this film’s main asset.

Tom Holland, although he doesn’t appear until nearly an hour into the movie, is superb as Arvin, and easily becomes the main protagonist in the movie. It’s good to see Holland play a more nuanced role instead of Peter Parker/Spider-Man.

Bill Skarsgard is also exceptional as Willard, and even though his screen time is limited, appearing mostly in the film’s first forty five minutes, he delivers one of the film’s best performances. Skarsgard, of course, just finished playing Pennywise in the recent IT movies.

Eliza Scanlen, who played Beth March in LITTLE WOMEN (2019), makes for a tragic Lenora, and Robert Pattinson is one creepy preacher. Likewise, Haley Bennett is excellent as Charlotte in limited screen time. Bennet played Emma Cullen in the remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016), and she also starred in the disturbing thriller SWALLOW (2020).

Jason Clarke and Riley Keough make for an unsavory pair of serial killers, even though Keough’s character tries her best to break from this partnership. Keough, who also was memorable in the horror movie IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017) is Elvis Presley’s granddaughter.

And Sebastian Stan is also very good as the conflicted Deputy Bodecker.

In smaller roles, Harry Melling stands out as another demented preacher, Roy, and young Michael Banks Repeta makes his mark as Arvin at nine years-old.

This is an outstanding cast, and they are a major reason why I was able to make it all the way through this gloomy period piece and depressing commentary on human nature.

At the end of the day, in spite of its bleak outlook, I liked THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME. You’d be hard-pressed to find another cast as competent as the one here, and its story as dark as it is, is based on truth. People are this misguided, are this dangerous, and in the case of someone like Arvin, are this relentless in their pursuit of justice.

While the devil may be present all the time, so are the Arvins of the world.

—END—

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