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Why "The Devil All the Time" Is Not a Masterpiece

Movie freak. Obsessed by the Oscars. MovieBabble contributor. If not watching movies, on the road somewhere in Europe...

Some weeks ago, I saw the trailer for "The Devil All The Time" (Netflix), and I was quite captivated. Let's face it: a very famous cast ensemble, a promising director, and an interesting subject. It has all the elements of a great movie, but does it live up to its promise?

The Plot

The movie takes place from the end of World War II to roughly the 1960s. One of the central characters is a young man called Arvin Russell, played by Tom Holland. At the beginning of the movie, we see how his father lives through a gruesome experience during the war. Now a traumatized veteran, he seeks refuge in religion. But when his wife Charlotte loses a painful battle against cancer, he realizes that no amount of sacrificial blood could ever have saved her. The father is so stricken with grief that soon after the passing of his wife, he commits suicide. Arvin is now an orphan.

In the meantime, another character, Helen Hatton marries a charismatic priest, Roy Laferty, who has a unique - and painful - way of proving to his flock how much he believes in God. Things get out of hand during one of his sermons and the preacher falls ill. Eventually, he becomes insane, believing that he is capable of resurrecting the dead. He tests his conviction by killing his wife and soon realizes that he has no power over the dead at all.

Confused and despaired, Roy decides to flee and takes his daughter Lenora with him. Unfortunately, the preacher ends up with two very sinister characters, husband and wife Carl and Sandy Henderson. These two are always on the road, looking for models, first photographing them and finally killing them. And Roy soon is their latest victim...

Fast forward to some years later, when both the two orphans, Arvin and Lenora are now teenagers. They treat each other as brother and sister, with Arvin taking a protective role toward Lenora, who is mercilessly bullied by other kids at school. The young woman is as religious as her late father and is raptured when a new preacher comes to town, Reverend Preston Teagardin. Little does she know that he is the evilest character she will ever meet.

The Acting

There is no denying this: there are some fine performances in this movie! I was a little bit worried when I saw that Tom Holland was going to interpret a very important role in "The Devil All the Time". One of the very first movies in which he starred, was "The Impossible", but he became famous as Spiderman in the Marvel superhero movies. And these all belong to very different genres. However, in this crime-drama, he excellently portrays an innocent and devoted youth who, as he becomes the victim of events beyond his power, gradually shifts toward violence. Keep an eye on this young man; he could become a great actor.

I think we can safely say that Robert Pattinson is less and less being associated with the Twilight saga. He was stunning in Bel Ami (still my favorite movie of him), but last year we saw what an excellent actor he has become. Although he didn't have a lot of screen time in The King, he almost overpowered Timothée Chalomet, also a star in the making. And, last but not least, how can we ever forget his part in The Lighthouse?

To be honest, I almost did not recognize Billy Skarsgård without heavy make-up; I am, of course, referring to It and It Chapter Two! I thought his performance was the most touching. Skarsgård does have a lot on his plate: the soldier who has witnessed too much violence, the believer who descends into despair, and the tormented father. What a challenge! Kudos too for Eliza Scanlen, an Australian actress who portrays the vulnerable and doomed Lenora. If she looks familiar to you, then you have probably seen her in Greta Gerwig's Little Women. I cannot help but wonder how her career is going to evolve.

By the way, during the movie, I simply couldn't place the voice of the narrator. After some research, I discovered that it belongs to Donald Ray Pollock, writer of the acclaimed debut novel on which the movie is based, The Devil All the Time.

What Goes Wrong?

Let's recapitulate: we have a formidable cast, various storylines, and exciting themes such as religion, crime, abuse of power, and sinister characters. Moreover, the locations are stunning and I have no complaints about the production design. Yet, the movie doesn't work. I am certainly not saying that this is a bad movie, but it's not a masterpiece. Why not?

It's the screenplay. It's written by 2 brothers, Antonio and Paulo Campos. Antonio also serves as the director and is known for Afterschool and Christine, two movies that won general acclaim. The way the different storylines are intertwined is nicely done, but most of the characters lack drive and motivation. What indeed drives most of these characters to commit a huge variety of sins? The movie leaves you behind with a lot more questions than answers.

Notwithstanding a very fine cast and a thrilling plot, a not so fine screenplay is the reason that "The Devil All the Time" comes over as a messy endeavor. It's difficult to connect with some of the characters and to make sense of their behavior. If Antonio and Paulo Campos had paid more attention to these details, the movie would have been a thrilling experience to watch.

What about you? Did you watch this movie? Did you like it or not? And why (not)? Let me know in the comments!