Film Review: Is “The Devil All the Time” Necessary in 2020?

Aptly titled, The Devil All the Time is a tale of relentless evil, which follows the lives of numerous sinister residents of rural southern Ohio and West Virginia. These include but are not limited to; a duplicitous preacher, a sadist couple, a corrupt police chief, and a violent religious zealot.

The latest release from acclaimed writer-director Antonio Campos, The Devil All the Time premiered on Netflix this September. Its launch on the popular platform guaranteed the film an audience. A rare luxury few up-and-coming filmmakers are awarded. 

With the current global pandemic, ongoing civil rights movement, and overall political dissonance we are experiencing here in the global North; releasing such an overtly violent and cynical thriller is an odd choice. 

When films convey an excessively negative outlook, storytellers tend to include rare moments of human connection. Creating this tonal contrast through variation of mood is vital to building fully realized cinematic universes. Most filmmakers understand that they must grant their audience emotional breaks- not unlike deserved rest stops along a lengthy and exhausting road trip. 

Here, in Campos’ universe, the viewer is allotted no such opportunities for rest or relaxation. I would liken watching this film to walking deeper and deeper into a muddy swamp, where you  become increasingly bogged down by the neverending gray sludge.

When you inflict so much violence, in so little time, it starts to lose its power. By the third death I was numb, wondering how much longer I would be subjected to total brutality.  

As the sludge of cruelty continued, I grew progressively more upset at the thought of unsuspecting people sitting down to watch this film at home; Knowing nothing of the glorified torture porn that they were in for. At a time in history where evil forces triumph, I wondered what greater purpose this nihilistic mess could possibly serve. 

The answer is not much if any. The Devil All the Time, at its core, is a transparent attempt at critique of religion and corruption in small-town America. A concept that has been done to death, often with greater competence and acuity (see Faulkner, Atwood). 

There’s nothing revolutionary, or even particularly interesting, about painting religious small-town Americans –in broad strokes– as secret sociopaths and sexual predators. 

Beyond the plot, the film’s visual components are equally depressing. Shot mostly in grays and browns with dark lighting (because matching the lighting to the tone has never been done before) it does not give one much to look at. 

If you watch this film for one thing: watch for the performances. Standouts include Eliza Scanlen as a quiet and often mistreated teenager, Bill Skarsgard as the possessed fanatic, and a staggering lead performance from Tom Holland of Spider-Man Fame as a skeptical teenager, jaded by a traumatic childhood. 

Unfortunately for everyone involved, not even the most spectacular of performances could save this film from itself. 

In times of such division, darkness, and loss, films like The Devil all the Time become taxing. No one is questioning the existence of evil in 2020, and art like this, which only serves to further divide and dishearten, is counterproductive. 

Not every piece of art needs to come from a place of total positivity, but now, in 2020, I would hope for every film to at least come from a place of truth and understanding. 

Featured image from Glen Wilson/Netflix via IMDb

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