Our world has never exactly been a leisurely skip through a field of gorgeous flowers, but things have certainly been better than they are right now. 2020 is probably the darkest time that many people have lived through, so it makes sense that a lot of the entertainment we've been drawn to throughout the year offers one of two key ingredients: hope or escapism. We want to feel hope in humanity, or we want to escape to a different world altogether. The Devil All the Time, the new Netflix film from Antonio Campos, has the exact opposite effect. This two-and-a-half-hour drama is the champion of misery and despair, reminding you at every chance that the world is a cruel, evil place, and that there's little hope of things getting better.
Based on the book by David Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time is a story that spans multiple generations, beginning with a troubled World War II veteran in West Virginia and ending with his adult son on the run at the height of the Vietnam War. The members of the Russell family, as well as the other characters in the film, have spent their lives plagued by great tragedy. Things begin as Willard (Bill Skarsgard) returns from the war and attempts to make a good life for himself and his new family, though he can't exactly shake the horrible memories of what he experienced overseas. Ultimately, the story continues on to Willard's son, Arvin (Tom Holland), as he wrestles with the death of his father and the ever-threatening world around him.
While The Devil All the Time doesn't offer any escape for viewers, the film is about trying to escape the world you're born into. However, it's easy to see that the thesis of the project clearly believes that there is no getting out alive. Sebastian Stan's Lee Bodecker at one point tells a young Arvin, just after his father dies, "Some people were just born to be buried," which acts as its unofficial slogan.
There are some really interesting ideas at play here, specifically in regards to setting the lives of Willard and Arvin alongside two devastating wars. Those battles caused an immense amount of pain, not just for those directly involved, but for multiple generations back at home, as well. The idea that Arvin may end up joining the military after everything he watched his father go through, just because he feels like he doesn't have any other option, is as compelling as it is heartbreaking. But the journey between those two points offers nothing in the way of joy, or even reprieve.
This film isn't exactly mean-spirited, it's just downright sad. Yes, art reflects life and many of us have lived through horrible things. Those kinds of stories should be told. But there's a relentless nature to Campos' approach that causes you to miss anything he might be trying to say, made worse by the fact that he never shies away from the gruesome or grotesque. There's a moment where a family dog is shown nailed to a cross and I wouldn't be surprised if the majority of viewers turn it off right then and there. Scenes like that exist after a point has already been made, as if to achieve nothing but shock value.
Holland and Skarsgard both excel in conveying their pain, showing layers upon layers of troublesome demons hidden just beneath the skin of their dirty faces. It's easy to see how difficult this was on the eternally optimistic Holland. As with most films he's in, Robert Pattinson arrives and completely picks everyone else's pockets. This time, however, he's one of the vilest characters on the screen. Pattinson plays a young, hot-shot preacher from Tennessee, complete with yet another out-of-left-field accent designed to make your spine crawl.
The Devil All the Time is frightfully difficult to endure, but that's not to say it's a terrible film. There isn't one bad performance in the bunch, the use of music sets an impressively unsettling tone, and the narration by the book's original author gives it some real Coen Brothers vibes. It's a southern, gothic noir with its tone, but there's no intriguing mystery at its core. People are born sad and they die sad, end of story. For most, that probably isn't the story you're looking for any time soon.
Rating: 3 out of 5
The Devil All the Time begins streaming on Netflix on September 16th.