Joe Tomastik’s review published on Letterboxd:
Finally, time to talk about the most popular film on Letterboxd this week.
*sees Enola Holmes has taken the top spot*
Okay, if I wasn’t truly interested in this movie, I wouldn’t have seen it. A big draw for me was the cast, as well as the tense, gritty, disturbing vibe the trailer was giving off.
And indeed, it is all of those things. But let me tell you, it’s not too often my opinion of a movie shifts so drastically while watching it for the first time. One minute I’d be ready to praise it, then the next question what it was trying to do, and back and forth it would go. I fluctuated heavily between liking and disliking it … before ultimately landing on the former. This is a good movie; certainly not great and very shaky, but still good.
The cast is as perfect as you’d hope. Tom Holland is so refreshing to see in a role that lets him stretch himself much more than the MCU or even Onward would allow. Bill Skarsgard is honestly more frightening here than he was as Pennywise, and Robert Pattinson continues to impress with how much presence he can bring to a role.
The characters some of them are playing, though, were a bit rougher for me to get my head around. The film’s arguably biggest thematic focus is religion, as it is filled with highly religious people, some good, and some so obscenely awful that it sometimes borders on satirical and didn’t come across as real. Over time I did get used to it as I realized there was an overall purpose to it, but stuff like seeing a preacher dump spiders on his face really seemed over-the-top for how grounded the film is trying to present itself as.
I think a lot of this has to do with a really messy first act. We see Willard and young Arvin’s pasts and the terrible things that happened either to or around them, and on paper it’s all excellent. But it often feels very rushed, with a lot of material given little time as it’s hastily moved along. And I narrowed down the reason for this as the film’s narrator, who I was very mixed on. On the one hand, he does offer some insightful words that can enhance the mood or our understanding of a moment, especially with his final words at the end that I found very effective. But not only can he also intrude to state the painfully obvious (and sound rather silly in the process), but he’s used to gloss over and briefly sum up events that would have been better if we saw them play out in full. Because of this, the progression of the story can be disjointed and distant, especially when it’s mixed in with other scenes that do slowly play out and build proper dread. It’s dialed back once Arvin is in his teens, but I think it got the film off to a rocky start.
Really, once we do skip forward to Arvin’s teen days, the film does improve. Traces of the issues I’ve mentioned still persist, but I picked up more of a purpose to why it was all there. I also picked up on the fact that this film deliberately conceals information from you, showing it in a nonlinear fashion to the point where even in the last fifteen minutes, you learn about a connection that was made way back near the film’s beginning. This was part of why I was so off-and-on the film for a while, but it ultimately works hugely to the film’s advantage. This is partially because it ties into the themes of warped perception and manipulation that are utilized by the crooked religious higher-ups. Seeing a character talk about delusion and then later use that to hide his own crimes is what made me realize this, and leads to a scenario far more insidiously real than the more overt forms of insanity we see. It also works to further the main journey of Arvin in trying to cope with his corrupt environment and the effects his terrible father had on how he does so. When so many people around you have the same beliefs but go about performing them in such drastically different and often negligently horrible ways, it makes it much harder for someone to healthily come of age, and indeed we see how lost Arvin is throughout the film. Even at the end, he doesn’t realize and never does realize that someone he thought was good had his own shady dealings.
All that in mind, if you’re going to watch this movie, be prepared for some consistently unpleasant content that’s as constant as it is varied. Some may find it exploitative, but I overall think the film does well to maintain a harsh tone where these things, aside from the exceptions mentioned, don’t feel like they go too overboard. That tone is substantially helped by how excellent this movie looks, utilizing old-fashioned film and some of the best cinematography I’ve seen this year to create a rugged, dusty environment that you feel you could reach out and touch. The lighting is impeccable on both the settings and characters, especially in the church confrontation scene that’s perhaps my favorite in the movie. That scene also speaks to how great the tension in the film is, of course bolstered by the acting, but also by the eerie score (though occasionally interrupted by an out-of-place song) and pacing of a scene as it transitions between two characters facing off.
The Devil of All Time is a somewhat mixed bag, but it ultimately comes out with the pros handily exceeding the cons. I admire its amazing performances, its gorgeous yet dread-inducing filmmaking, how it doesn’t hold back with its content, and the heart of its central character trying to navigate such a disheartening world while grappling with becoming a part of its ugliness. Yet between the scattershot storytelling and a few characters that are a tad too exaggerated, I can’t help but wish it had a smoother execution.