The Devil All the Time

The Devil All the Time ★★

The spectre of religion casts a long shadow across small-town America in The Devil All the Time, although it’s difficult to glean anything meaningful from that incessant bleakness and the soulless violence that erupts between long, monotonous passages. Uninteresting characters, overdone yet underexplored thriller tropes and a relentlessly grim tone make for a thoroughly forgettable movie that never offends you enough to hate it but also struggles to justify its existence. There’s not a single compelling character to guide you through the dark tunnel that seems to stretch on endlessly into nowhere, despite each character representing a heady yet underexplored theme.

There’s the grizzled war vet who loves his wife above all else, as is insisted through repeated and blatant exposition, yet there’s no scenes of courtship or any visible chemistry between them, all Bill Skarsgard does does is grunt noncommittally at her requests for sugar as the attempt to accurately present Southern masculine stoicism manifests itself as indifference and ends up detracting from what’s supposed to be the emotional weight that hangs over Arvin’s shoulders for the entire movie. His trauma and loss of faith at seeing the flayed man placed against small-town religion could’ve been a haunting dive into theodicy, nihilism and eventual salvation but all the middle steps are skipped as it seems like a switch is flicked by the writers to push him into religious zealotry antithetical to the grounded character we saw earlier. Arvin himself lacks any specificity to make him relatable beyond the low bar of being the only decent guy, he would’ve been outshone by every other character if the supporting players weren’t equally inert.

Religion is further explored with the opposing characters of Roy Laferty and Preston Teagardin, where an admittedly interesting parallel is drawn between the actions and eventual fates of a man obsessed with God and one who clearly sees him as nothing more than a useful tool. Roy is probably the most compelling on the entire cast, where despite his religious hysteria he genuinely believes himself to be God’s chosen vessel and is driven by faith into an act of extreme violence. When it goes wrong, he flees, but surprisingly he decides to turn back and face justice for his crime. It’s a shame that we never get to see him really grapple with his faith and why God allowed him to commit such a horrific action, instead he’s subsequently killed off to further a plot that goes nowhere. In contrast, Teagardin is very much a charismatic charlatan in the vein of Eli Sunday from There Will Be Blood, except Teagardin’s act is so much less convincing as he’s humiliating and seducing members of the congregation in record time. He’s remarkably one-dimensional for a villain as there’s not much too him besides the expected “influential figure who abuses position of power,” which is disappointing considering this movie seems to hold the corrupting power of religion as one of its key themes. Sure, Teagardin twists some scripture to seduce Lenora but he plays out like a caricature and there’s nothing about the religious dependence of small-town America in how they actively defend God’s supposedly infallible servants to discredit survivors or the way that damnation is weaponised to keep ordinary people in line.

Disappointingly, the women of this movie are nothing more than props to motivate the male characters with their deaths, it’s actually quite depressing how four of the five major female characters are killed off for the purpose of character development. Charlotte’s cancer serves as the catalyst for Russel’s fanaticism and her death drives him to suicide. Hannah’s murder is the turning point for Roy as he’s forced to flee. Lenora’s accidental suicide drives Arvin to confront Teagardin. The only consolation was that Sandy’s arc seemed to be building up to a decisive confrontation with Carl, except she’s unceremoniously killed by Arvin in a freak coincidence without being given the chance to finish Carl herself, and becomes Sheriff Lee’s motivation for hunting down Arvin. There’s a place for unsentimental depictions of violence, especially in movies about small-town or historical America, but killing off most of your female characters for character development isn’t a great look, especially when it doesn’t service a strong theme.

Neither the husband and wife serial killers or Sheriff Lee’s election added much to the overall experience, I don’t feel they built upon the movie’s themes in any meaningful way. The killer with a camera seems to touch upon the voyeurism of gratuitous violence by audience members but then the movie indulges it anyway with Hannah’s death and the crucified dog, while the abusive relationship angle ends with both members dying by an external force without allowing the victim any sort of closure. Small-town corruption and nepotism is similarly brushed upon with zero specifics and Lee is once again killed by an outsider. Overall, every theme in this movie is brightly signposted yet lacking in depth despite the unrelentingly bleak tone insisting upon some sort of great importance.

Underwhelming and hollow, yet probably revered by edgy high schoolers for its relentlessly bleak tone and the way it window dresses itself with heady themes of violence, religion and corruption. It’s still competent enough on a narrative and technical level to stay on the tracks but a closer look reveals a lack of destination or even cargo.

Block or Report

nightmaterial liked these reviews