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Courtesy of Netflix

September 28, 2020

American Violence in Netflix’s ‘The Devil All the Time’

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Netflix continues their push for producing Oscar-contender Netflix Original Films with Antonio Campos’ newest film The Devil All the Time.  Set in Post WWII rural America, we follow the Russell family who must face the evil and perils of religion taken too far. It’s a dark, slow and atmospheric movie that expresses its themes through gruesome imagery and amazing acting.

This is not a movie for the faint of heart, which is surprising when you look at its cast. The protagonist Arvin Russell, a young man who aims to keep his family safe when they are threatened is played by Tom Holland. The film also features Robert Pattinson, (Twilight, Tenet, The Batman) as a crooked preacher, and Bill Skarsgård, most famous for portraying It the Clown, as a World War II vet. These compelling choices for a film of such dark themes pay off masterfully on screen.

The Devil All the Time marks the beginning of Tom Holland’s foray into dramatic acting after his role as Spiderman. In the film, his facial expressions shine as he expertly shows the toll of his character’s tough childhood without speaking. Through his accent and his reserved emotions, this is Tom Holland presenting his acting in a way he never really could as Spiderman. This isn’t the classic extroverted, melodramatic Oscars performance that actors love to use to cinch their first win. Holland defies the norm and shines by holding his emotions in check in a way not many actors could. This, in my opinion, is truly deserving of an Oscar nomination.

The dastardly preacher Preston Teagardin is played by the eccentric Robert Pattinson. Pattinson shocked the world with his quarantined insanity in The Lighthouse last year, and excels once again. Teagardin is an outsider in the story, and Pattinson decides to portray him with a unique, high-pitched southern accent. One aspect of Pattinson’s performances that never fails to astonish are his bursts of emotion. In The Devil All the Time, Teagardin is out of options in a scene, and surrenders completely to his fear, shocking not only the other characters, but the audience as well. Pattinson has limited screen time in this film, but he really does leave a mark as a dramatic actor.

Bill Skarsgård, without his It clown makeup, plays a tortured war vet, diversifying his portfolio. Skarsgård leads the first leg of the film as his character Williard Russell who just got discharged after witnessing a terrible war crime. One great aspect in his performance is how his character is shown to be sure of his choices; Skarsgård represents the character’s faith full-heartedly. He doesn’t take the movie by storm in the same way that Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson do, but he shows why you should see him as a Skarsgård, and not It.

This film, adapted by the novel of the same name, is ambitious with its screenplay. There are five distinct storylines, and the film tries its best to connect them through plot threads and the narrator, voiced by the author of the novel. The problem, however, is that the plot threads look more like plot contrivances, and the film relies heavily on its narrator to lecture the audience on character choices. If the screenplay held more faith in its great cast, the film would’ve been much more engaging. For example, after a climatic scene featuring its two stars Holland and Pattinson, the film tries to connect all the other various characters in a way that is disappointingly predictable.

Although the film takes place in three primary towns,  it fails to establish them as their own distinct settings. All three towns look like the same rural town and feature an utter lack of interesting set design to make them distinct. In many scenes, we transition from town to town quickly but it’s never clear which town we’re in. Another disappointing aspect of The Devil All the Time is that the director wishes to showcase its violence in the most gruesome way possible. The violence, however, doesn’t add anything to the film, and a more talented director would have recognized the scenes where it’s best to leave more to the imagination.

 
Overall The Devil All the Time is an intriguing movie that has a lot to say about post-WWII faith in rural communities, but fails to let its themes and characters speak for itself. The three stars do their best to bring this movie into critical success, but the director and screenplay are too heavy and bring the film down in many scenes. This is a solid 3.5 out 5 stars, but I still recommend this film for anyone that would like to see the acting chops of its three leads — just be prepared for some gratuitous violence.

 

Ryan Richardson is a senior in the College of Engineering. He can be reached at rrichardson@cornellsun.com