The Devil All the Time

The Devil All the Time ★★★

There's a feeling throughout this movie of tourists coming to gape at Appalachia, looking on in stunned horror at what they think they're seeing before getting their fill of controlled shivers and packing back up in the Volvo. I wasn't surprised at all after watching this to find that director Antonio Campos is a denizen of NYC, and that this was produced by the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal. I don't doubt that they were honestly going for authenticity, and likely they achieved something resembling it. But the presence of a stacked roster of bankable stars like Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Riley Keough, etc. is an early indicator that this is going to be a little myopic.

The unifying factor in all the disparate pieces of the narrative here is the poisonous influence of backwoods Christianity. That's a remarkably easy dog to kick. Not that this country's legions of Pentecostal churches have really done it any favors, but for a movie that's all about the malign influences of a sort of blind adherence to religion, this is missing some depth. I think of a movie from last year, Them That Follow, which had its own problems but had a better eye for what's going on here. That movie had a sense of the deeper charismatic pull of the church in a geographically isolated region. This one, though, just kind of assumes that people are stupid and go along with the fire and brimstone act because they've got nothing better to do. Make no mistake, this stuff leads people to profoundly stupid choices. But the relationship of people to religion is way more complex than this movie acknowledges. Something that I think is the product of a team of outsiders making this movie.

It's an entertaining enough yarn. There's a pleasure in watching the seemingly unrelated bits start coming together, and to Campos' credit the way its presented makes it feel less contrived than it could have, even as vanishingly unlikely coincidences start piling up in the journey of Arvin Russell down the dark path laid out before him by his family history. I didn't much care for Robert Pattinson's uncut Elmer Gantry preacher, going along with the fairly simplistic viewpoint of old time religion adopted by the filmmakers, which felt like an opportunity for Pattinson to ham it up country style for a spell. The entire subplot involving Sheriff Sebastian Stan and his serial killer sister and brother-in-law felt entirely unnecessary; you could have left that out entirely and Arvin's journey would have been more or less the same. The narration is an especial weak point, which makes the movie feel like more of a Coen brothers ripoff than it really is, and seems like an attempt to get a local's permission to engage in a little rednecksploitation.

One thing I did enjoy was Tom Holland stretching a bit. I had no idea he could play a violent character as well as he did here, and he does a good job playing a hard-bitten, old before his time orphan in the early going. There's a series of scenes where he goes out looking for a group of guys who've been harassing his adopted sister, and he delivers a series of impressively vicious beatings that were way more convincing than I was expecting. That was a pleasant surprise.

Entertaining, to be sure. But not much more beyond entertaining.

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