Friday, September 25, 2020

Movie Review: The Devil All the Time

The Devil All the Time ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Antonio Campos.
Written by: Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock.
Starring: Tom Holland (Arvin Russell), Robert Pattinson (Preston Teagardin), Riley Keough (Sandy Henderson), Harry Melling (Roy Laferty), Haley Bennett (Charlotte Russell), Bill Skarsgård (Willard Russell), Mia Wasikowska (Helen Hatton), Sebastian Stan (Lee Bodecker), Eliza Scanlen (Lenora Laferty), Jason Clarke (Carl Henderson), Douglas Hodge (Tater Brown), Given Sharp (Susie Cox), Drew Starkey (Tommy Matson), Lucy Faust (Cynthia Teagardin), Abby Glover (Pamela Sue Reaster), Cory Scott Allen (Sheriff Thompson), Eric Mendenhall (Deputy Howser), David Maldonado (Henry Dunlop), Kristin Griffith (Emma), Adam Fristoe (Priest), Michael Banks Repeta (Arvin Russell - 9 Years Old).

Antonio Campos has an impressive roster of films behind him so far in his career – his chilly, remote films Afterschool (2008), Simon Killer (2012) and Christine (2016) suggest a heavy Michael Haneke influence, and yet unlike most who try and do the Austrian auteur’s style, he is able to bring something new to the proceedings. His films have always been violent, yet cold – but they do get under the skin of their protagonists, seeing what makes them tick, even as they do awful things. He’s also been bold stylistically – probably more so in Afterschool than the others, where he switched between his own chilly cinematography, and the YouTube videos his high school characters watch, or make themselves. He also has a flair with endings – they aren’t twists in the M. Night Shyamalan sense, but the final moments in Afterschool and Christine, certainly recontextualize everything we have seen before it. The Devil All the Time is his latest, most ambitious, most sprawling film – and sadly, it doesn’t really work at all.

The film tells a number of different stories – mostly set in the 1960s, a revolving around Arvin Russell (Tom Holland), local resident of Knockemstiff, Ohio. Before we get to him however, we have to flash back to his father Willard (Bill Skarsgard) – who remembers the horrors he saw in WWII, and who deals with more tragedy when he returns with his wife (Haley Bennett). You feel for Willard, yet you also realize that the only thing he really taught his son was toxic masculinity. And Arvin is the only male in the movie you feel for.

The rest of the motley crew of a cast are all doing horrible things. There is Robert Pattinson as Preston Teagardin, the new preacher in town with an eye for the young women in town, but is, of course, a massive moral hypocrite. His most prominent conquest in the film is Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) – and you’ll get no points for guessing what happens there. There is photographer Carl (Jason Clarke) and his wife Sandy (Riley Keough) – who convince various strangers to pose for pictures, that slowly turn pornographic – before they end up killing them. There are more – many more really – all circling these characters. A corrupt sheriff (Sebastian Stan), more morally compromised men of go (Roy Laferty) and his wife (Mia Wasikowska).

The film is based on a novel by Donald Ray Pollock – who also provides the copious amounts of voiceover narration in the film, that is both tedious, and yet somehow necessary – not only to keep the various plot threads clear, but also for character motivation and feeling, because the screenplay doesn’t do a good job aside from that in making it clear. It doesn’t help any that most of the actors seem to be in different movies. Jason Clarke and Riley Keough probably fit the milieu best, and are doing genre performances, with a little modern psychology in them – but they’re too thin to be that interesting. Robert Pattison is nothing if not interesting – I have no idea what accent Pattinson was attempting here – but I love it just the same. It is a choice as they say. And it’s certainly better than Tom Holland, who goes all mumble mouthed trying for some sort of American accent (I’m sorry, but there are many American actors from the South or Midwest, who wouldn’t struggle with accents – so I’m not sure why Campos went for Brits here).

Basically, the film is one long meander to nowhere. You keep expecting it to pick up the pace or dig deeper, or something. Instead, there are a lot of short stories of sin and punishment that sort of end, and then the next one kicks off. I remember reading Pollock’s book a few years ago – and liking it. But whatever there in his prose, whatever larger themes he had, get lost in translation here. The film is a slow ramble, and when it ends, you wonder why you took the trip. 

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