Adapted from a novel of the same name, The Devil All The Time features a sprawling narrative, populated by some truly detestable people, woven through each other's lives, unleashing vile acts upon each other and often breeding more evil as they go. The result is a barrage of unrelenting despair for its characters, and a sometimes overwhelmingly bleak viewing experience for the audience at home. None of this automatically spells doom for the film, as there are plenty of beloved but downright brutal movies that thrive on dark subject matter, but this one never quite necessitates its grim undertaking with any sort of illuminating statement at the end of the tunnel, or enough satisfying light between the cracks.
The novel is said to be even more sinister than the film, so it's not completely fair to fault the adaption for some of the unconscionable choices made by the characters, which might alienate viewers who are desperate for someone decent to root for as the intertwining plot unfolds. But perhaps the real misstep is in the admittedly ambitious choice to try cramming the source material into a 138 minute movie, instead of a limited series that would afford more breathing room to truly explore each character's wicked descent. The shorter format is forced to try filling in gaps with semi-effective narration and flashbacks, which help in juggling the moving parts as they come together, but fail to round out characters like the deputy (Sebastian Stan) or Sandy (Riley Keough). Those are the two whose actions are most puzzling, as they seem to lack sufficient context, and may have benefitted immensely from additional time.
Instead, the film spends a big chunk of the time that it does have laying out the backstory of Willard, which at the very least treats us to an excellent performance from Bill Skarsgård, a fun little role for Harry Melling as the off-putting Roy Lafferty, and provides a look at how our main character came to inherit such tragic circumstances, which do fuel the rest of the story. The problem is that because this isn't a series with multiple episodes to provide that same service to the characters around him, the film finds itself late in the run-time, forced to barrel through dreary plot points with flat surrounding players. We're not afforded a deep enough examination of these other desolate lives, or opportunities to break for brighter moments which might help us digest the otherwise distasteful onslaught.
Though there is certainly something of a bright spot in Arvin (Tom Holland), who audiences will undoubtedly latch on to not only in sympathy for the character, but because of a career-best effort from Holland. He's given a chance to showcase some hefty depth and range, proving his versatility as an actor to some viewers who may only see him as the friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man. Here he faces forces that are anything but friendly, headlined by an actor with a highly anticipated superhero role of his own in Robert Pattinson, who delivers another striking performance to add to his hot streak, as the despicable Reverend Teagardin. Arvin's struggle to take on the devilish demons that surround him without falling too far down the spectrum of morality to join their ranks, is where the film is its most compelling. And it packs its most heartbreaking punches with the character of his sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), but unfortunately these stand-out components can't quite elevate the finished product into something truly special as a whole.
The Devil All The Time is extremely well-acted, finely-shot, and flirts with some provocative themes, but ultimately fails to drive them home with meaning to really stick the landing. Plagued by issues of uneven pacing and under-developed characters, the film is often unable to escape from beneath its own gloomy shadow, and its source material may have been better-suited for the small screen. So it's on the right platform, but maybe in the wrong format.
The Devil All The Time is streaming now on Netflix.