The Devil All the Time and all the images you see in this review are owned by Netflix
Directed by Antonio Campos
It looks like Warner Bros non-stop protestations that movies and movie theaters are back has failed to materialize as the world is still ravaged by a pandemic and studios are still shy about putting anything out to overwhelmingly empty theaters. I guess it means we’re going back to the Netflix well once again which is perfectly fine as we ALL need to do our part to keep people safe, and they’ve been putting out a steady stream of original movies so I’m pretty much spoiled for choice until the world decides to reopen again. So with the breadth of Netflix’s catalog in front of me, which one do I choose? Well it was either Cuties or the new movie with Robert Pattinson, and as much as I hear good things about Cuties (and hear bad things from the absolute WORST people about it), I had to stick with my main man Robbie P and see what he’s up to! Does this movie satiate the listless masses for another week of perpetual lockdown, or does the dour tone of this movie hit a bit TOO close to home right now? Let’s find out!!
Arvin Russell (Tom Holland) is your typical sweet kid from the country with a definite chip on his shoulder. He has a strong sense of right and wrong, but given enough of a push he can be convinced to take serious action against those who slighted him and his family. Perhaps he got that mean streak in him when he was a kid (Michael Banks) and his father (Bill Skarsgård) used to do the same thing. Perhaps it has to do with his mother (Haley Bennett) who died of cancer when he was young and the… interesting actions his father took during that time. Still, he doesn’t have much to complain about considering he lives with his loving grandma (Kristin Griffith) and… let’s go with half-sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen) and leave it at that. To get into the specifics there is something I’ll leave the movie to explain, but needless to say that things are pretty good for him, and as long as they aren’t surrounded by a bunch of terrible people to set Arvin off, things will go just fine for them! Well I hate to break it to you, but there are some bad people in this little town and Arvin is stuck right in the middle; between the devils all around him and the devils within himself. Does the world push Arvin to take drastic measures to restore order in the face of injustice, and can one man survive in a world full of bad people? What will Arvin lose of himself in this story of pain, loss, and vengeance, and is there any sort of light at the end of the tunnel once he’s found the justice he seeks? This sounds like a superhero origin story, though PROBABLY not the one that Holland usually plays.
When adapting a book into a film, there are a lot of factors to consider and a lot of hard decisions that need to be made. How much of the book needs to be in the movie? Do we need to move stuff around to fit the structure of a three act story? Do the core themes of the book translate well when we see them visually represented instead of reading them as words? Now I’ve never read the book that this movie is based on, but after watching this movie I feel like I might as well have considering how many decisions in that were made during the production of this film simply deferred to the source material in the most blunt and literal ways. Does this make it a bad film? I wouldn’t say so as the characters are strong and the production is certainly competent enough for what needs to be conveyed, but it is a frustrating one to be sure. The first half in particular seems hell bent on not missing a single beat of the novel’s plot in a way that reminds me of Lawrence Kasdan’s adaptation of Dreamcatcher, and while the struggle between the book and film seems to even out in the latter half, it’s almost as if the movie itself is incidental; like some odd novel to film equivalent of those motion comic DVDs that got popular in the early 2010s. I mean granted, it’s better than a movie having NO IDEA how to adapt the source material, but it’d have been nice if they had a few more ideas on why this should be a movie in and of itself.
The problem with the movie comes down to its adaptation which manifests in many forms, but first and foremost is the structure which makes the first half of the movie feel meandering. It’s a multi-generational journey that weaves many individual tales that when put together create a rather satisfying whole, but it’s a bit hard to see it at first with the way the film jumps around various time periods and locations. It really isn’t until the second half of the movie that you even have an idea as to what this is all about or frankly who the main character is supposed to be; constantly moving the focus from one set of characters to another until it finally sticks on Tom Holland. Once the movie has a modicum of focus and we can really sink into this part of the movie, it does get better and feel more focused as we head into the climactic third act which is certainly satisfying in its own way, but it ultimately feels like the way you’d structure a novel instead of a movie. Now this isn’t an unsalvageable situation and the issue is more with the ordering of the scenes and the transitions between them than the content of the scenes themselves, but the cherry on top that drove me up a while watching this is the narration which feels absolutely pointless and bizarrely blunt. The narrator isn’t even a character in the movie as its actually just the author reading us lines from the book whenever it felt that the audience wouldn’t understand what’s going on, despite it not being necessary at any point in the movie. None of the information given can’t be discerned just by watching the actors and letting the scenes play out naturally, and it’s what makes this feel less like a movie than some hybrid between an audio book and a reenactment; missing only the random talking heads to cut to whenever a scene is done. The film just doesn’t seem to have confidence in telling this story as a film, and while the solution they came up with is thorough in ensuring the story gets told in its entirety, I can’t help but think it’s the worst way of achieving that goal.
Once you get past the baffling way they decided to tell it, the story is solid if perhaps skewing a bit too dark for me to fully embrace. The film definitely has a mean streak to it with illnesses, depravity, and the worst of human selfishness, but I’ll give the first half credit for giving it JUST enough of an over the top nature to it that it comes off as darkly humorous. There’s a bit with a dog that’s pretty horrific (spoiler alert: there is a dead dog in here if that’s an issue for you), but it goes so far beyond good taste that you kind of have to admire that this movie ACTUALLY went there and just let the absurdity of it all play out. The second half though is where things get much more serious and dire which for the purposes of this story fits the overall themes at play, but as I said, it perhaps moved a bit too far into that direction for my taste. The inciting incident that leads to the third act is perhaps a bit much, though I guess I can’t exactly say the character’s reactions are unrealistic. For me it was more of a deflating moment in the ballpark of Fridging a character, and there were certainly other ways it could have been handled that would have gotten us where we need to go.
More than anything else, what works about this movie and what you’ll remember about it are the performances from the actors who have lots of room and lots of dialogue to bring to life these engaging characters. There are certainly performances that work better than others, but with the likes of Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, and ESPECIALLY our favorite lighthouse keeper Robert Pattinson, you’re spoiled for choice as far as someone in this movie to engage with. Pattinson in particular gives perhaps the most MEMORABLE performance as the very skeevy and thickly accented preacher, but the heart of this movie really belongs to Tom Holland who’s got a rough role to play here and pulls it off about as well as you could hope. Holland plays a young man besieged at all sides by bad people; the bullies at school, the lousy preacher, and even more that he’ll unfortunate run into along his journey. His struggle is to find a path of righteousness where he can be happy with the man he becomes, but with so much evil around him, finding the right path isn’t easy which Holland has to portray more through his expressions and tone than through the literal words and actions he takes. It’s a strong enough performance with enough layers to it for him to carry the movie, but like I said he’s far from the only interesting person in this with it almost being an ensemble piece as some characters show up only briefly but leave a lasting impression; not just on us watching the actors perform their craft, but on the larger story itself. The only one who felt a bit out of place was Jason Clarke who feels a bit one note in his supremely sleazy role, but then his role in the story wasn’t doing him or his co-star Riley Keough any favors. Their story honestly feels like more of a side story that our main characters happen to run into at the end, but it does give the finale a bit of OOMPH where it could have easily ended on a much more sedate note.
I’m not going to remember much about this adaptation that doesn’t feel explicitly tied to the source material or to the performances from the actors, but considering how much I enjoyed some of those moments I’d be hard pressed to NOT recommend this movie at least on some level. It’s certainly a bit too dark at points for my taste and that first half is almost comical in the way it painstakingly maps out every detail you couldn’t care less about, but the performances are great and the story manages to come together in a satisfying enough fashion that I couldn’t help but feel more positive than not as the credits started to roll. If you’ve got the time (which a lot of us do) and you’ve got a Netflix account (which a lot of us also do), then I can think of worse ways to make use of both.