Written and directed by Antonio Campos from the novel by Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time tells a sprawling story of shady characters and multigenerational legacies of violence on the border of southern Ohio and West Virginia. It’s an Appalachian crime saga that attempts to approximate the aesthetic of Cormac McCarthy but is too pretty, calculated and narratively ambitious to achieve it. Prior to its Netflix debut on Wednesday, Sept. 16, it is receiving a limited theatrical release (including Indianapolis). Even if it was great, I would say returning to a theater isn’t worth it. But Devil is not great, which makes it easier to say waiting another week is the right call.
As someone who thought Campos’ Christine was one of 2016’s under appreciated classics (the Indiana Film Journalists Association awarded that film’s star, Rebecca Hall, with Best Actress that year), these critiques don’t come from a critic anticipating disappointment with Devil. And yet …
The star-studded cast is unassailable: Tom Holland plays Arvin Russell, an orphan whose familial history leaves something to be desired. His father, Willard (Bill Skarsgård), lost his wits after a string of familial tragedies, depicted in the film’s first act. Arvin lives with his grandparents and Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), a fellow orphan whose parents’ downfall is similarly depicted. The two are haunted by the specters of their pasts as well as new predators in their midst: the sketchy Reverend Teagarden (Robert Pattinson); a duo of serial killers (Riley Keough and Jason Clarke); and a crooked sheriff (Sebastian Stan). Even Harry Melling — known to some as Dudley Dursley but now one of Netflix’s finest repertory players as seen in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and The Old Guard — pops in as Lenora’s fallen Pentecostal preacher. Every one of these actors takes the opportunity to show a different side of themselves. It’s a notch in each of their caps.
But for such a star-studded cast, the actual story told in The Devil All the Time has too much going on to really utilize them to their fullest extent. It’s a sprawling epic that jumps forward and backward in time, relying on narration by author Pollock himself to explain character motivations and relationships ad nauseam. It becomes frustrating and redundant, a constant series of introductions and explanations in place of a story motivated by characters experiencing something real and tactile.
Devil’s lack of an authentic emotional through-line is matched by Campos’ aesthetic decisions, which can only be described as overwhelmingly clean. Every character feels spotless, their towns newly painted, their cars washed, their shirts pressed. I mentioned to a friend that Stan’s gross sheriff looks so clean you could lick mustard off his cheek. That could just be Stan, but the sheen creates a layer of remove from the story, too — which is not to say stories about Appalachian crime need to play up the dirt and grime because it’s an impoverished region, but there’s something missing from the visual palette.
As I mentioned before, Devil premieres Sept. 16 on Netflix. It feels like their biggest cinematic release this month, certainly boasting the cast and crew to deserve the distinction. While the story and aesthetic did not work for me, it may work for you. Give it a shot, but don’t leave your house to do so.