carter’s review published on Letterboxd:
CONTENT WARNING: Pedophilia, Suicide, Murder
I’m from a small town. I was born here, I’ve lived here for nearly 17 years.
Sometimes I feel like I just moved in.
Many of my childhood friends have families that have lived here for generations. For reference, my parents moved here a few years before my sister was born. We aren’t from around this area, even if both me and my sister have lived here our entire lives. Everyone knows each other through old connections apart from us. That’s just the way small towns are, and that very interconnectivity is at the center of The Devil All the Time.
The interconnected story is a pretty common cinematic staple by now, mostly popularized by Pulp Fiction, but often times these interlinked story films now choose to trade out compelling stories for the star-power of its cast, and while at first glance The Devil All the Time seems to be going in the same direction. But upon starting the film, the true nature of the star-studded cast is apparent:
They aren’t just there to sell the story, they’re there to tell it.
Tom Holland was Spider-Man in two billion dollar blockbusters just a year before, but he’s not Spider-Man here, he’s our violent, traumatized protagonist Arvin Russell. Robert Pattinson is gearing up for a Batman film, but he’s not Bruce Wayne, he’s the disgusting, pedophilic preacher Preston Teagardin.
The entire cast is fantastic, those two are the most interesting with their extended screentime, (Pattinson is absolutely terrifying and should be in contention for more awards), but everyone is putting in fantastic work. Bill Skarsgård, Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen (Between this and Babyteeth she had a fantastic 2020 slate), Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, and Sebastian Stan also do fantastic jobs with their roles. All are recognizable actors, but they don’t feel like just actors, this isn’t a “who’s-who” name game, they feel like their characters, they have the faces of actors, but none of them have the associated personalities.
But, actors can only do so much without a good script, and The Devil All the Time certainly has quite the solid script. Many negative reviews bring up the dark nature of the film, with so much of it being filled with violence or sheer misery. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but I think most criticisms related to that miss very much of the film, with the complaint that there’s “no comedy” being not only an annoying criticism, but also completely inaccurate. While there’s not much by way of light jokes, there’s a few moments of black comedy that work fairly well. In particular, there is an early moment where, after his father’s suicide, the young Arvin Russell says “That there’s a prayer log, but it don’t work too good do it?” . This is one of many dark jokes that somewhat poke fun at the near-overwhelming darkness of some scenes. Another great one is read by the narrator (voiced by the author of the book The Devil All the Time is adapted from, Donald Ray Polluck) after the horrifying description of Carl Henderson(Clarke)’s actions, the supposedly objective narrator calls him a “sick fuck”. The comedy is only sprinkled in small amounts around the film, but it’s certainly there.
It also doesn’t hurt that it captures the small town element perfectly, with the three main settings set up perfectly. The only real criticism here is they’re all very similar, each setting feels fairly homogenous, and at times I forgot which area the story was set in, but each one feels like a living and breathing town, where everyone knows everyone else, except for the Russels. The small-town setting also contributes to the recurring motif of isolation and loneliness. The most well-known usage of this is through the cinematography and visual style.
Now, Antonio Campos is not a filmmaker I’m very familiar with, I haven’t seen Simon Killer, nor Christine, and yet I’m already fascinated with his work, his craft. He’s perfected his own methods of visual storytelling. There’s a great video spread around by Netflix’s Twitter account where the narrator breaks down Campos’ usage of isolation through doors, columns, and windows. Through his heavy usage of these in framing, he’s able to separate his focal points from groups of people, alienating them and showing their sense of loneliness. If you want to hear about that, please go watch the video, it’s incredibly informative.
The sound design, while nothing particularly special, definitely has its highlights, the gunshots have plenty of weight behind them, and the beautiful sounds of nature will never stop being fantastic to listen to, everything works perfectly in tandem with the fantastic set and costume design. Everything works together to create the perfect atmosphere for this dark and twisted story set in a run-down small town.
The visual editing is very good, with the cuts never being too noticeable, and while not particularly all that interesting, there’s not much to say that’s negative about it. There are definitely moments where the editing lines up with the gloriously haunting seven note motif in the score.
In The Devil All the Time, Arvin Russell has one goal, to protect his family from the evils that are coming for them, no matter what scene he’s in, that is his only goal. The best view of this is in his confrontation with Teagardin. Arvin knows the preacher preyed on his cousin, impregnating her and leading to her suicide. He’s come with only one solution, to kill. He’s going to make sure Teagardin never harms his family again, he is framed with one window behind him.
One window, one goal.
Teagardin, on the other hand, has two goals. One is to continue to satisfy himself through his abuse of power as a preacher, this is his primary goal. But in this new scene, he has a secondary goal, to survive. Teagardin is framed with a bright window behind him, this represents his original goal, it’s the number one thing on his mind, but as tension rises, another window appears to his right. As what Arvin intends to do becomes more and more evident, Teagardin covers the entire window, that is no longer his primary goal. The final goal he has is dim and becoming less and less likely. Arvin shoots Teagardin, and there’s no more goals as he dies on the floor of the church.
Light as a whole plays a large part in the visual storytelling, with Arvin shown to nearly always have his face in complete shadow for the first 90 minutes, once Teagardin is dead, Arvin’s face has a sliver of light showing, but is still mostly in shadow. This continues as he gets rid of threat after threat until the final moments, where his face is entirely in light, and he’s finally completed his mission. For the first time, Arvin is truly at peace, and that is the best way to end his visual journey.
The Devil All the Time is a movie that I adore, it’s everything I could have possibly asked for out of a dark and twisted story. I find it to be slow, yet eventful, disgusting yet beautiful. I absolutely love it, and while many may find it to be disturbing purely for shock value, I very much believe it contributes to the story in a positive way. I may not watch The Devil All the Time again for a year, I may not ever watch it again, but I will continue to love it.
I love The Devil All the Time.