The Devil All the Time (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): The Devil Is Never Gone

Netflix movie “The Devil All the Time”, which was released on this Wednesday, feels rather rote and shallow despite all those interesting elements mixed into its decidedly grim and lurid narrative. Although I was not bored at all during its 138-minute running time as appreciating its mood, details, and performances, I was also somehow distant to its story and characters without enough emotional involvement, and I still have considerable reservation on whether I can recommend it.

Based on the novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, the movie mainly focuses on two different rural towns as casually juggling a number of various human figures stuck in their respective miserable lives. When we are introduced to a lad named Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) at the beginning, he seems to be happy to return to Coal Creek, Ohio after the end of the World War II, but his mind is still haunted by a grisly sight he and his comrades encountered at one point during the war, and he still does not feel that comfortable or relaxed even when he is welcomed by his caring mother after his arrival in Coal Creek.

His mother expects Willard to marry a young pretty woman who grew up along with him since she unfortunately lost her family, but Willard has already decided to marry some other young woman, whom he happened to come across at a diner in the middle of his return trip to Coal Creek. Although he and Charlotte (Haley Bennett) are total strangers to each other, something clicked between them during their accidental encounter, and they eventually move to Knockemstiff, West Virginia after their following wedding, while hoping for more happiness to come.

However, despite the strong affection between him and his wife, Willard cannot help but obsessed with that traumatic war experience of his, and that consequently drives him into his own religious zeal. At a remote spot in the forest near to his residence, he builds a sort of altar for himself, and he often forces his young son Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta) to pray along with him in addition to getting Arvin more accustomed to toxic masculinity. When a couple of guys happen to insult him, Willard initially takes the insult without showing much anger, but he subsequently demonstrates to them that he is definitely not someone they can mess with, and that surely impresses Arvin a lot.

In the meantime, the movie introduces some other crucial characters in the story. Helen (Mia Wasikowska), who is that young woman expected to marry Willard, happens to find love from a zealous local preacher, who has a wild scene where he shows off the strength of his religious belief in front of others in a rather creepy way. They eventually marry and then have a baby daughter between them, but, alas, their relationship does not last that long due to a certain local couple who starts to commit their twisted acts of killing here and there around Ohio and West Virginia.

When his wife later gets very sick with no chance of recovery, Willard becomes quite desperate, so he attempts to drive himself more into his morbid faith, and that inevitably hurts Arvin in more than one way. In the end, Arvin finds himself left alone after a series of devastating tragedies, and he is subsequently sent to Coal Creek, where his grandmother is ready to take care of him.

After several years, Arvin, who is now played by Tom Holland, becomes a young man, but it looks like he will be hopelessly stuck in Coal Creek during the rest of his life unless he gets drafted into the US Army due to the ongoing war in Vietnam. Although his grandmother and Helen’s daughter Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), who has been like a sister to him since he came to live in his grandmother’s house, are always there for him, he does not feel that fine as still haunted by his family tragedy, and he also begins to show his violent streak when he decides to do something about the mean boys who have bullied Lenora in her high school.

On one day, there comes a new preacher into Coal Creek, and it is pretty apparent from the beginning that he is not a very good one at all. While Arvin sees through this preacher as watching his smug and condescending attitude, Lenora gets involved closely with this preacher, and the preacher does not mind at all exploiting her innocent religious faith.

As the plot continues to thicken during its second half, the screenplay by director Antonio Campos and his co-writer Paulo Campos adds more elements. There is a tricky circumstance associated with the corrupt sheriff of Knockemstiff, and then there is a serious relationship problem of the aforementioned lethal couple, who has reached to a sort of ennui without getting much pleasure and excitement from their murderous ritual as before.

However, these and other elements in the story do not cohere together enough on the whole, and the overall result is often pedestrian without much depth to draw our attention. Shot on 35mm film by cinematography Lol Crawley, the movie is filled with authentic period atmosphere and details, but the flawed narrative of the film is more evident as it slouches toward the expected resolution for everything in the story, and the detached attitude of Pollock’s sardonic narration only accentuates the growing distance between us and its story and characters.

Anyway, “The Devil All the Time” is not a total failure, and I admire the efforts of its various main cast members including Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Michael Banks Repeta, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough, Sebastian Stan, Eliza Scanlen, Haley Bennett, Kristin Griffith, Mia Wasikowska, Harry Melling, and Robert Pattinson, who surely has lots of fun with his deliberately exaggerated acting as he did in “The King” (2019). I am still dissatisfied because the movie does not go that far enough for its stark and pulpy story materials in my inconsequential opinion, but I was entertained to some degree at least, so I will let you decide on whether you want to watch it or not.

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