Hello, everyone! Last night, in the midst of my post-Thanksgiving food-coma, I opened up Netflix and watched the site’s new original film The Devil All The Time. Stuffed full of A-list actors, and based on the critically acclaimed novel of the same name, the film promises a lot, but fails to deliver. Dark, violent, and nihilistic, the movie checks all of the boxes on the list of genre clichés for a modern prestige drama, but lacks any depth when it comes to characterization or meaning. Expect it to win Best Picture at the 2021 Oscars.
Quick Synopsis: Centered around the towns of Knockemstiff, Ohio and Coal Creek, West Virginia, the movie follows a cast of disparate characters as they struggle with violence, religion, and morality. Arvin Russell, a young man haunted by his father’s obsessive praying and later suicide, battles against fate to protect his adopted sister from town bullies and a lecherous preacher. Carl and Sandy, a pair of roving serial killers, pick up hitch-hikers and murder them for fun, while Sandy’s brother Sheriff Bodecker ignores their misdeeds in order to maintain his corrupt hold on the town. A series of violent deaths force the main characters to meet on a collision course that leads them towards disaster.
My thoughts: I talk a lot on this blog about failed book-to-movie adaptations and the various reasons why a movie can have difficulty capturing the magic of the original book. One of the main reasons these adaptations fail is because the source text relies on the character’s inner thoughts and feelings to carry the emotional weight of the work. Since movies are all about the visuals, it can be difficult for a film to express the inner thoughts of a character without either A) really strong cinematography or B) explanatory narration. The first method is the more difficult of the two, and few film adaptations manage to convey their character’s inner thoughts well with just cinematography, so many resort to narration to explain their character’s thoughts to the viewer.
As a matter of taste, I hate explanatory narration. I think it’s lazy. It takes all the work of “watching” a movie out of the equation and forces the viewer to take away certain ideas from a character’s performance instead of letting them form their own opinions. The Devil All The Time especially uses narration as a crutch. Our omniscient narrator, a twangy-voiced cowboy type (who happens to be the author of the book, Donald Ray Pollock), jumps back and forth between past, present, and future in a way that would work well in a novel, but is unnecessary in a movie.
Why, for instance, have the narrator foreshadow the death of a character when that death takes place in the very next scene? Why explain the reason for a character’s haunted past, and then show that haunted past in a flashback moments later? Why end the film with the narrator explaining the character’s hopes and dreams, instead of just showing them? The movie breaks the classic rule of “show, don’t tell” because it’s easier for the narrator to tell the whole story than for the cinematography to work on its own.
Visually, the film is beautiful. With a palette of whites, greens, and browns, the movie demonstrates the beauty and sadness of a life spent in isolated Appalachian towns. Juxtaposed against this stillness are sudden acts of brutal violence, shown in the vibrant splashes of crimson that bleed into crisp white shirts and drip onto spring-green grass. The visual language is strong in this film, and it could have stood on its own, if the director had been brave enough to let it.
Watching The Devil All The Time, you can clearly see its influences: No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Fargo walked so that this movie could limp towards the finish line. But while those movies perfect the idea of blending the Western, noir, and crime thriller genres into something new, The Devil All The Time imitates that style without truly understanding it or bringing something new to the table. Having never read the novel, I can’t tell if that’s the fault of the original story, or the fault of the movie for only scratching the surface of the book’s depths.
The characters in this story are all stereotypes. We have Arvin, the “hero,” who avenges violence against his family as a Clint Eastwood-esque vigilante. We have Carl and Sandy, the Bonnie and Clyde murderers who were ripped straight from the headlines. We have Sheriff Bodecker, who makes no attempt to bring any complexity to the crooked-cop cliché. We have two preachers who are corrupt and lecherous. And then we have the women, of which every single one is an “angel in the house” turned “fridged woman.“
I get that this type of film is about “the menfolk”, but when every single women in this film ends up dead, and all but one of their deaths serves as a catalyst for the corresponding male character’s emotional growth, we have a problem. I can’t name a single unique thing about the women in this film. There’s the blonde one (who dies of cancer) and the brown-haired one (who gets murdered) and then the other blonde one (who is raped and commits suicide) and then the other OTHER blonde one (who is murdered.) And sure, most of the men die too. But the difference is that men in this film die because of their own actions and choices, while the women in this film die because of actions that others take against them. They act pretty, say very little, and do almost nothing, but their deaths cause the plot to keep spinning. It’s lazy and sexist, and whether that’s the fault of the original text or the movie, I don’t know, but either way it’s not worth watching.
Because this movie is a prestige drama, we have the obligatory star-studded cast. And since it’s a movie about Appalachia, of course every actor is British or Australian, because it would be too authentic to cast actors with real Appalachian accents. The accents range from convincing (Aussie Jason Clarke ) to abominable (Brit Harry Melling, a.k.a Dudley from Harry Potter). Aussie actress Mia Wasikowska shows up just in time to die a horrible death, as do actresses Hayley Bennett and other Aussie Eliza Scanlen, who share about 10 words between them before they, too, die horribly. While the acting could technically be described as “good,” the whole movie feels horribly inauthentic. Could they not have a consulted a single West Virginian or Ohioan on the correct accents? Or perhaps cast actors from Appalachia? Robert “Cedric Diggory” Pattinson and Harry “Dudley Dursley” Melling as fire-and-brimstone American preachers were not convincing.
The Devil All The Time throws a lot of death and brutal violence at the viewer, as if hoping that brutality in itself is meaningful. But at the end of this incredibly violent 138 minute movie, I felt nothing. The events in the film seemed random and pointless. The characters were changed by their experiences, but since I never felt a connection to them, their experiences didn’t matter to me. Even though the narrator took advantage of every silent moment to shove explanations and exposition down the viewer’s throats, I didn’t feel like I had any deep understanding of the main character’s motivations. In the end, they were like puppets acting out a story that has been told a thousand times before.
Final consensus: The Devil All The Time takes a lot of inspiration from classics like No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, but it can’t do more than imitate before relying on lazy crutches like constant narration and character stereotypes. While the cinematography is compelling, and the cast is stacked with strong performers, neither can cut through the overwhelming sense of mimicry that pervades the film. Skip this one; odds are you’ve seen a better version of it already.