45 minutes into The Devil All the Time, the camera slowly pans into a dimly-lit kitchen, where a modest, close-knit family is celebrating the birthday of Arvin Russell, played by Tom Holland. He’s essentially the film’s lead, and it’s the first time we see him, 45 minutes after the title card.
The preceding runtime is dedicated to setting the stage for what ultimately leads Arvin to that kitchen table. Director and co-writer Antonio Campos would like you to believe that Arvin’s journey begins nearly 20 years earlier, with a seemingly random assortment of characters spread across multiple close-knit towns in the South, bonded by a fierce dedication to God and a series of unfortunate, and occasionally depraved, circumstances.
That is The Devil All The Time’s grave mistake. Those 45 minutes feel aimless, indiscriminately weaving in and out of characters’ lives, an omniscient narrator helping us track who we’re with and where and when we’re at. His insight is critical, as the characters struggle to be compelling enough on their own to care about. Instead of fleshing these characters out, Campos dedicates his effort to crafting the most grim and dour atmosphere possible. There is no joy or levity to be found in this gaggle of sparsely connected towns and characters; even the suggestion of lightness is snuffed out by cancer, or gunshots, or spiders crawling on faces in church.
By the time we reach Arvin at that dinner table, quietly celebrating his birthday while cradling his dead father’s gun – one of many exhausting callbacks to the first act – it’s more than fair to ask what the point of all of this is. The answer appears to be this: Arvin’s life is one marred by terrible tragedy, and it’s only a matter of time and circumstance before the other shoe drops. There is as a semblance of a narrative pulse in that, the potential to set off a doomsday clock that would add some desperately-needed stakes.
Sadly, that pulse is lost, as we cut across space (time is blissfully left alone) to check in on characters and storylines we were never going to care about. Making matters worse is the erratic pacing. Every scene feels at least five minutes longer than it should be; even the fateful showdown between Arvin and the lecherous preacher (played by Robert Pattinson) is dragged out past the point of tension.
Is the lingering part of the point? The Devil All The Time relishes in the misery it captures on screen. The imagery is unflinching and brutal, and even though there’s a heavy reliance on jump scares, there are moments that are genuinely unsettling. Eventually, the blood and gore and shock loses its power and, like much of this film, it becomes tedious and downright exasperating.
Again, the question of what all this labor is for rears its head. Perhaps The Devil All The Time is offering a heady comment on the destructive and corruptive powers of organized religion (particularly Christianity), or an exploration of generational family trauma (it certainly isn’t a study of its thinly-drawn characters). And yet, both of those compelling threads are well beyond the film’s reach, as it is too unfocused and spread too thin to meaningfully develop either.
It’s a shame, because The Devil All The Time boasts a strong ensemble cast that deserves better. In a decidedly un-Marvel-like role, Tom Holland does a great job playing dark, leveraging the same jittery energy that made his performance as Peter Parker so delightful to craft a character constantly on the edge of violence. Also displaying her versatility is Emma Scanlen, who nearly ran away with Sharp Objects as the sociopathic little sister of Amy Adams. Here, she’s downright docile, but conveys an inner strength and conviction in her beliefs that makes her naivety about the preacher all the more tragic.
And then there’s Robert Pattinson, that predatory preacher. Of all the performances in this film, his is the most intriguing. He plays the preacher as awkward and slightly off-kilter, certainly not the domineering, overwhelming presence who might seem best suited for his evil acts. The brilliance of that choice is how that unassuming nature masks the monster underneath, how his reedy Southern accent is capable of severe gaslighting and outlandish braggadocio. His performances contributes greatly to the film’s chilly air, but it’s much easier to appreciate.
It’s ironic that The Devil All The Time ended up on Netflix, a streaming service that has trained us to abandon something within seconds if we’re bored. It’s hard to believe that many will stick with the film long enough to reach its unsatisfying end, or even middle. Nothing – not a gritty Tom Holland, or a discomfiting Robert Pattinson, is worth the hellish effort.