The Devil All the Time is Exquisite Action-Misery
The Devil All the Time establishes a new sub-genre of film: action-misery. Antonio Campos’s new Netflix offering dabbles in a sea of ideas - sin and redemption, the cyclical nature of violence, the moral decay of a nation - but it can’t turn its gaze away from the abject misery of the lives it follows for long enough to explore any single one in depth. Like the action movie before it that half-heartedly attempts to be “about something” in between all the carnage, the action-misery breathlessly piles agony upon agony into a mountain of despair, stopping only briefly to find something human living underneath it all, only to lose it in the distraction of its next twisted twist. The Devil All the Time is exquisite action-misery.
Campos’s film floats among a series of doomed lives orbiting around two Midwestern towns: Knockemstiff, Ohio and Coal River, West Virginia. The God-fearing, PTSD-stricken father gives way to the God-hating, vengeful son; the crazed prophet is replaced by the pederast preacher; and the corrupt cop and his reluctant serial killer sister meander all the while in the background. It’s notable that in a heavy-handed criticism of what lies underneath the white picket fence innocence of post-war America, Campos casts a bevy of non-Americans: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Robert Pattinson, Jason Clarke, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, and Sebastian Stan.
“Lotta no good sons of bitches out there,” notes Earskell, the great uncle to Arvin ( Holland). But don’t worry about names; who’s who matters less than what happens to everyone: bad things. And in the world of The Devil All the Time, these things are deserved. Or, at least, inevitable. No good sons of bitches lead no good lives that lead to no good ends. And you, dear viewer, must suffer through it all.
The actors invest emotional depth in characters that don’t receive the same treatment from Campos’s script. It’s a parade of serious actors taking themselves seriously, and though the material lets them down, Holland and Scanlen manage to rise above it for a half-hour stretch in the film’s second half. But their characters are treated like pieces on a chess board, dragged around at will and sacrificed for some greater strategy, turning what might have been poignant tragedy into an exercise in perversity. Pattinson is the only performer to match the energy of the film itself; both are chaotic evil, every decision void of anything but a nihilistic drive to make you uncomfortable.
Campos puts together a technically impressive film. Parallel scenes of uncontrollable rage from Arvin and his father, Willard (Skarsgård), evoke the emotional toll of witnessing violence, nevermind experiencing it. The score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans alternates between dread-inducing strings and dulcet, calming notes, accompanied by 50s-era pop tunes that emphasize the disconnect between America’s image of itself and its brutal reality. But as is the way of the action-misery, The Devil All the Time cannot take a break from its onslaught of misery to become anything greater than gorgeous torture-porn.