Submitted by Boone Alexander
I want to disclaim this piece by saying that there is probably no one in this hemisphere who loves Robert Pattinson more than I do. I am a recent convert to the cult of RP, but what I lack in seniority, I more than make up for in my zeal. Now, with that said let us begin.
The Devil All the Time is Netflix’s most recent attempt to hop on the A24 slow, psychotic horror/thriller/suspense movie bandwagon by adapting Donald Ray Pollock’s novel of the same name. Our setting du jour: “Southern” gothic horror, or at least what directors think is Southern (read: poor). Netflix’s biggest selling point? The cast. Antonio Campos has brought out a constellation of big-name stars to give our fun little horror hoedown a little more oomf. Biggest names include Tom Holland (imprisoned in hot, befuddled teen boy typecast), Eliza Scanlen, Bill Skarsgard, Sebastian Stan, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough Mia Waskikowska, and of course… Robert Pattinson.
We open with Bill Skarsgard’s Willard Russell’s not so subtle encounter with Christianity in World War II, when he finds a crucified soldier left by the Japanese whom he then mercy kills. Willard’s return to Knockemstiff, Ohio is marred by disillusionment with Christianity and being haunted by images of the cross. He then lives his version of the American Dream, marrying the diner waitress Haley Bennett, and then he has a sudden religious rebirth, setting up a backyard cross that he takes his new son Arvin to. Cue the American Dream is a lie motif when Bennett dies of cancer and God is stoically absent. No spoilers here, but needless to say, PETA is certainly not going to be raving about the movie on Twitter.
We now meet our intrepid protagonist, 16-year-old Arvin Russell, played by America’s favorite 24-year-old, Tom Holland. Arvin now lives with his adopted sister Lenora, a Jesus girl who makes Joan of Arc look like Mae West. Arvin struggles to do the right thing in a world that treats both him and his sister badly. Enter the Reverend Preston Teagardin, played by one Robert Pattinson, a new, slick-talking, sly-eyed preacher who turns their lives upside down. Add dirty cops, Dixie mafia, itinerant serial killers, the Vietnam War, and some good ole-fashioned Polaroids, all wrapped up in the ever-nostalgic aesthetic of the 60s, and you’ve got yourself a movie
The name of the game for this film is trauma. How we experience it, how we live through it, and (most importantly) how it gets repeated. Everyone receives some form of trauma in this Gothic gorefest. We begin in the first 10 minutes with a crucifixion. From there, it’s off to the races; you name it, the movie’s got it. Animal sacrifice, corruption, drugs, religious hypocrisy, murder, serial killers, and spiders. Not a film for the faint of heart. But once we scrub out the sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, what are we really left with? Gothic? Absolutely. If by Gothic you mean middle school goth girl, eyebrow + lip piercing, all black clothes, dyed hair streaks aesthetic: just busy, busy, busy.
What do you get when you combine 6+ characters all with different, integral backstories played by big name stars with pushy agents into 138 minutes of film? Answer: one great big Hollywood traffic jam. Campos gives each star their requisite screen time (cheerfully killing off a few in the process), but what the movie has in starpower, it lacks in narrative quality. The movie simply doesn’t have enough time to give each person the characterizations necessary for us to feel fully invested in them or to understand their motivations. The best exemplification for this is Donald Ray Pollock himself giving us almost insulting narrations of what the characters are doing and feeling in a vain attempt to smooth over the canyon-sized gaps the movie leaves.
Not that Pollock exactly has his work cut out for him. Most of the characters, despite having plotlines integral to the story, are perfectly content to be perfectly static. Robert Pattinson’s Reverend Teagardin in particular was touted in Netflix’s promos as a great evil, the primary antagonist of the movie, the “devil” of the movie’s title. To be fair, we immediately get bad vibes the minute Pattinson struts into the ramshackle church wearing his powder blue suit and frilly shirt, straight out of an 80s prom scene (a costume he never changes). Pattinson is quickly unmasked as a religious hypocrite after he manipulates Eliza Scanlen’s Lenora into having sex with him and then spurns her when she becomes pregnant. And… that’s it. That’s all we get from Teagardin.
Pattinson’s character (despite a powerful performance as a hissable religious charlatan by RP himself) never moves beyond this. The same holds true for the other characters who, despite their narrative importance, seem placed in the film simply to die. Scanlen’s Lenora is never more for us than “Jesus girl,” despite the trauma inflicted on her by Teagardin. Sebastian Stan’s Sheriff Bodecker is never more for us than a dirty cop. In a movie about trauma in everyone’s lives colored by violence, death, and evil, we’re left wanting more from a movie that simply does not deliver. This isn’t to say there aren’t bright moments. The actors in particular live up to their starpower and make a valiant attempt to breathe life into the moribund script, but there’s only so much eyelash batting Robert Pattinson can do before we start to ask ourselves “Why are we even watching this?”
Overall, one leaves the movie with neither bloodlust sated, nor their sense of justice gratified, things horror movies need at least one of satisfied to be considered worth spending 2 hours watching. The film’s script falls flat (we’re physically explained the title of the movie by the narrator in the first 20 minutes), and we never get anything from the characters beyond our first impressions. The narrations by Pollock feel like a final insult, as if Campos doesn’t think the audience were smart enough to understand the character choices for themselves. But that’s what you get when you try to make a movie with 7 main characters, just a great big busy mess. I give the movie a C+. Oh hell, we’ll give it a B-, but only because of Robert Pattinson.