After a brutally violent, ultimately superfluous murder sequence in the new Netflix film “The Devil All The Time,” a narrator chimes in, referring to the murderer as a “sick fuck.” The insult, while apt, feels like a bit of a metatextual nod, given how easily it could be applied to the director behind the film, Antonio Campos.
With his fourth feature film, Campos has leaned entirely into his darker nature, producing a film that uses southern Christianity as an excuse to justify his own obsessions with depravity and tragedy. Yet, through its mixed messaging and occasional caricatures, “The Devil All The Time” is still worthwhile, as Campos and novelist Donald Ray Pollock exploit hard-boiled crime fiction and southern gothic tropes to create a complex story about familial loss, the limits of faith and the intricacies of American geography, time and generations.
Sporting an all-star cast, “The Devil All The Time” follows Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgârd) and his son Arvin (Tom Holland) as they navigate a decades-long story of intertwining criminals and shady caricatures throughout Ohio and West Virginia. While Willard and Arvin may bog down the story with their archetypal tales of dying white masculinity in the face of a changing American culture, “The Devil All The Time” is at its best when it eschews its main characters’ plights and focuses on the evil that lurks on the edge of its ensemble.
This evil, represented by charismatic Southern preacher Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), “Natural Born Killers”-esque couple Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy Henderson (Riley Keough) and a host of other degenerates and malcontents, gives the film a sorely needed momentum that Holland and Skarsgârd can’t quite provide.
With Pattinson, the film strikes gold, showing off all of his most insane eccentricities in a performance that feels influenced in equal parts by televangelism, Paul Dano in “There Will Be Blood” and Lindsey Graham. Over the past five years, Pattinson has reinvented himself as arguably the most important actor in independent filmmaking, with his performances in “Good Time,” “High Life” and “The Lighthouse.” Now, with “The Devil All The Time,” Pattinson appears to be enjoying the limits of his creative freedom, chewing up scenery and acting deplorably with reckless abandon.
Part of the brilliance behind Pattinson’s performances is also metatextual, as his overwhelmingly charming turn in the delightful Christopher Nolan film “Tenet” and a role in the upcoming blockbuster “The Batman” likely signal the end of his reign as an independent film icon as he returns to being one of the most important movie stars in the world.
On the other end of the story, Clarke and Keough provide “The Devil All The Time” with its most referential subplot, at times doing scenes that feel like emotional carbon copies of “Natural Born Killers,” “Badlands” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” As Carl, Clarke channels the same energy he’s used for the past decade in lesser films like “White House Down,” “Terminator Genisys” and “Serenity,” going completely over the top with such earnestness that his persona manages to be a combination of pure rage and startling vulnerability. With “The Devil All The Time,” Clarke’s finally found material worthy of his talent for villainous caricature.
Keough, on the other hand, is likely the film’s highlight, taking her rather flat waitress-turned-criminal-on-the-run character and imbuing it with a real sense of longing and sociopathic tendency. In her performance, Keough manages to convey a sense of sexual energy, blankness and almost decency.
Yet, “The Devil All The Time” occasionally stumbles by grasping for too much. With its overwrought interweaving and unrelenting sense of dread and borderline self-parody dialogue, the movie both knows what it's doing and refuses to answer for it. In doing so, certain plotlines, particularly Sebastian Stan’s role as crooked cop Lee Bodecker, feel extraneous and sometimes plainly confusing.
In that way, Campos is once again reflecting a cultural landscape, basically crafting a version of Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” as if it was co-written by Flannery O’Conner and Raymond Chandler impersonators. Even in its choices in narration and music, the movie feels influenced by something like Ken Burns’ documentaries, choosing the most on-the-nose music cues and a narrator whose voice sounds like a mix of Peter Coyote and Billy Bob Thornton in order to invoke an emotional response.
With Campos and “The Devil All The Time,” there’s a question of what exactly that emotional response is supposed to be. The simplest answer is dread, but Campos seems unclear on where that dread is derived from. With an overreliance on Christian imagery and terminology, Campos is searching for meaning that he can’t really pin down. He’s clearly angling for a commentary on Christian hypocrisy by making Pattinson’s preacher a sexual deviant, having murderers discuss the Bible before killing their victims and displaying multiple different scenes of crucifixion.
But in the end, one can’t help but walk away from “The Devil All The Time” with the feeling that Campos never actually cared about his protagonists’ crises of faith or belief in religious institutions. The filmmaker simply uses them as plot devices to explore his own fascinations with tragic consequences. While Christianity is at the heart of each conversation that moves the story forward for plot purposes, the movie only seems interested when it’s tuned in to moments of suicide, murder and animal abuse.
To recognize that dissonance isn’t necessarily a criticism, given that those moments of depravity are by far the best in the film and possibly invoke the actual commentary on Christianity that Campos is trying to get across. He was, after all, the showrunner of a television show literally called “The Sinner.” But through all of this hand-wringing over God and resurrection, Campos ultimately seems like a filmmaker trying to trojan horse a Tarantino-esque crime story about middle America into a biblical context. And while that’s an admirable goal, when a viewer can see his plot machinations, it feels a bit wrong and more than a bit stale.
Contact Chris Carr at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Instagram and Twitter @Breeze_Culture.