The Devil All the Time premieres September 16 on Netflix.
By Palmer Rubin
We have sort of this morbid fascination with inter-generational trauma as a culture, don’t we? None more so than trying to take the tale of Hamlet and trying to force it into the context of small-town politics, the sons of drunkards and the local sheriff and the lecherous preacher all spinning round each other like tops till a wave of redemptive justice does them good. This territory has been covered so many times that every so often, a film covers the exact same ground and it feels like this tale as old as time has been rediscovered, that perhaps out in the stolen land where the factories have closed and the water has been rendered poisonous to drink, perhaps it is ironically more pure that way.
Antonio Campos hails from New York City, so it’s very doubtful that any of this stems from his own experience. Granted, this is based on a novel that itself sounds very tiresome. And Antonio Campos has definitely made a truly fantastic film before in the form of 2016’s Christine. Campos took an otherwise exploitative story and crafted perhaps one of the most notable and empathetic portrayals of suicidal ideation that I’d seen in quite a while, using the real life story of Christine Chubbuck, the first person to ever commit suicide on live television. That’s a morbid subject, but it treats Christine as a fully autonomous person driven to her limits by systems that don’t seem to want her there. Rebecca Hall’s performance is both intentionally nasal but also steely glares hiding the deep pain within. Even if Rebecca Hall never suffered from depression herself, she at least wanted Christine’s experience to not be minimized in that performance, and she largely succeeded.
I say that because I deeply disliked this film, and found it very tiresome for the most part, but I don’t think it’s tiresome because Campos is a director that doesn’t give a damn about what he’s doing. Campos, as a filmmaker, has a lot of sub-textual ground he wants to cover here, from inter-generational trauma to the general hypocrisy of American evangelism. There’s a lot of preachers stomping about between the aisles, pouring spiders on their faces, a lot of what one might jokingly call the pre-QAnon era of snake oil salesmen. All that is well and good, if only Campos did not treat this like the first time a hypocritical preacher is secretly a deeply violent and deranged person. Every time we see this, it’s just one more bit stolen from Robert Mitchum’s performance in The Night of the Hunter, the one that really did cause a stir with its open suggestions that evangelical Christianity would be the death of this country. Campos seems genuinely shocked at the idea, which is again strange considering his forté is the most corrupt and irredeemable parts of society hiding under respectable lenses.
So of course Robert Pattinson’s spitting and sneering Good Old Preacher is all sorts of horrifying things, and of course his trajectory will put him on the path of Tom Holland’s deeply traumatized and isolated loner trying to bring a little bit of Western-style restorative justice into the equation. Functionally, the issue is that the film is so overstuffed with characters twisting and turning round each other that it’s almost impossible to keep track of everything. One reckons that if all was taken out other than Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson and Eliza Scanlen playing the living MacGuffin that drives them against each other, it would be a far stronger piece overall without acres of bloat drowning it in its own intentions. Granted, Scanlen’s part is so poorly done in spite of her tremendous performance that that would need to be heavily reworked as well. It’s bizarre to see the writer and director of Christine then go off and treat the female lead with such derision, even if this seems to be mainly because he sticks too closely to its source material, refusing to veer away. The fact that Campos decides to imply an incestuous relationship between the two, or at least the hidden desire for one, just feels like one more transgression for its own sake. Scanlen’s only purpose in the movie is to be repeatedly raped and then to take her own life, and this is all so tiresome, like a small child trying to impress their classmates by showing them roadkill for the first time. Again, the question emerges towards a director who previously made a nuanced and well-measured film about a woman suffering from suicidal ideation: where the hell did that guy go?
That’s not even a fraction of the other character actors and performers all clashing with each other. Whatever flavor of neo-noir you want, this film is stuffed to the gills with it, even as absolutely gorgeously as its shot and how haunting that accompanying score is. It may be bloat around the simplistic revenge story, but damned if it isn’t technically masterful bloat all around. Campos screws the pooch in the writing category, not excising any of the unnecessary elements, but the man knows how to make a good composition and tense scenes all around even so. Tom Holland, despite being the film’s protagonist, doesn’t appear till nearly the halfway mark, after a series of brutally gory vignettes that establish nothing we couldn’t have gotten after Holland’s first appearance. We’ve got all the trademarks: animals being tortured to death, violent and graphic suicides and murders, serial killers stalking about with fetishistic glee, all of it ultimately adding nothing to the film’s far superior second half.
What it does have going for it is that not a single performer is off-key here. I worried that Holland especially was miscast in possible the most unhinged role of his short career, but to his credit, he’s able to subvert his previously easygoing persona well enough. He’s about the only character that we get any real insight into and why he makes the choices that he does, the rest feeling like cartoonishly evil Snidely Whiplash types all torturing and molesting each other because at least that way, the audience will be shocked into caring. It’s a shame to see Campos misfire on such a level, because there’s so much errant potential in the premise, if only he’d cut out at least half of the film entirely. A ninety minute thriller would be so much more effective than what we have here. You have to wonder what possessed performers of this caliber to take such bit parts. Why is Mia Wasikowska barely in this? Why does Riley Keough have so little to do? I understand the desire to work with Campos, considering his immense talents as a filmmaker, but if you ever wanted to watch a bunch of famous people bite it in fiction, eventually the deaths themselves just turn into utter tedium. These aren’t characters, but just abstractions of neo-noir tropes we’ve seen a billion times before, without any real attempt to do anything new with such hackneyed material. Only Holland comes out of this with anything approaching characterization and nuance, and I ask Campos again: why? You’re so much better than this ordinarily. Why did you put so little effort into the screenplay when you clearly put your all into the film’s performances and compositions? It’s such a gorgeously shot thing otherwise, it’s such a beautiful picture to look at, nothing but textures. Lol Crawley (yes, that’s his real first name), who also shot the similarly gorgeous Vox Lux, and the crew he works with does such stellar work as it is, and Danny Bensi and Saunder Juriaans compose a score that really gets into the warped and futile mindset that drives Holland’s character to perpetuate cycles of violence all over again. But it’s the script and the pacing that ultimately do this one again, that one detail out of whack takes the rest down.
It is funny, in retrospect, to see Netflix films backfiring in the complete opposite ways that we’ve seen past studio releases misfire. Those blow up in everyone’s faces because of too much interference, but Netflix seems to have the opposite problem. In a lot of ways, The Devil All The Time feels like a throwback to the beginnings of New Hollywood, when things like Deliverance were box office draws and the stars all looked like average people. Those films also had the problem of self-seriousness and excessive bloat, and it only makes this one feel bleak and miserable in ways that don’t seem to add anything to the equation. A lot of us have this misconception that only the most violent and grimdark films are considered Art, because of their unflinching portrait of human suffering, but this could’ve used a little more soul. Holland and Scanlen do what they can (their brief scenes together are the film’s strongest, and I wish their relationship was built up more), but this just feels like several steps backwards for a filmmaker who has previously made a film just as dark, but had the human element too. You need those two parts to contrast one another. Only half of that can be found here.
I give The Devil All the Time a C.