Published Sep 15, 2020One of the more authentic voices of the so-called hillbilly lit movement of the last decade or so, Donald Ray Pollock worked in a paper mill near his Ohio hometown for most of his adult life before his first short story collection was published in 2008 at age 50, having finally soaked up enough of the region's astringent culture to set it ablaze in his tough-as-nails rural fiction. His first novel, The Devil All the Time, appeared shortly thereafter in 2011, and it has now been given the Netflix treatment courtesy of Antonio Campos (perhaps best known for 2016's Christine, a rather intelligent character study of Christine Chubbuck, the real-life news anchor who died by suicide on-air in 1974).
The Devil All the Time contains similar moments of sudden and unexpected bloodshed: a mid-century Southern Gothic ensemble about vengeance and misguided faith, violence and the bloodlines it runs in. Carried by Tom Holland's troubled rage as main protagonist Arvin Russell, and some amusing scenery-chewing from Robert Pattinson as Preston Teagardin, the handsome, frilly-shirted preacher who wreaks havoc in his small Ohio town, it is watchable enough, although it ultimately fails to capture the primal tone and generational sweep of Pollock's novel.
There is perhaps no better role for an actor to ham it up in than a small-town preacher, and Pattinson clearly relishes being able to lay into his take on a Southern drawl here, preaching frantically about Satan's delusions to his nervous congregation, and dipping his fingers sensually into a bowl of fried chicken livers that one of his flock brings to a welcome event. These and other elements (the deployment of old-timey worship music for instance), wink at us in a distinctly Coen Brothers way in the vein of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and True Grit — the latter based on the novel by Charles Portis, which Pollock would likely have read.
We are working in a tradition here then, and The Devil All the Time is certainly not the worst to come out of it. It falters in some key areas however, most notably Campos's somewhat flat, matter-of-fact direction, which often has a daytime movie or soapy quality to it, despite its sometimes shocking flashes of violence, which end up jarring in a way that isn't related to their gruesomeness. And, as is almost always the case with book-to-film adaptations, there's just too much to fit in, leading to decisions about which characters, plot points, and thematic content should receive the most focus. As a result, some of the connective tissue feels underdeveloped here, despite being called on for some heavy lifting towards the end. Decisions could have been made that, while perhaps unfaithful to the source material, would have ultimately led to a smoother cinematic flow.
We arguably spend too much time with Carl and Sandy for instance (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough), the aberrant criminal couple who cruise America's rural highways for victims (although Carl's fixation with flesh and model poses highlights America's obsession with celebrity, sex and the body in interesting ways), at the expense of a rather rushed first half-hour, where the creaks of the narrative structure being erected are almost audible — the film's full of awkward, memory-jogging flashbacks, though, so don't worry. Not helping any of this is one of the more intrusive narrators of recent years, with author Pollock himself on the mic. Some fans may jump at the opportunity to hear the man himself intone, but the film's already low-budget feel could have definitely been elevated by a proper actor in this role.
Another name that stands out from the credits is Jake Gyllenhaal, who's on board as a producer here, and one is inclined to recall 2013's Child of God, James Franco's low-budget passion project based on an early novel by Cormac McCarthy, probably the most revered of all living Southern Gothic authors. It wasn't received particularly well, but its well-intentioned and serious commitment to the source material was clear, and it wouldn't be out of place to file Campos's sturdy but unremarkable The Devil All the Time alongside it — the work of an ardent fan either too afraid or too respectful to kill his hero's darlings. Campos's film is arguably the better of the two, and Pattinson and Holland do give it some star wattage that helps it along, but it's unlikely this would have gained much traction without them. (Netflix)