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Friday, September 18, 2020

Movie Review: The Devil All The Time

Even during a pandemic, the tech titan Netflix has been consistently churning out original content. Now that Labor Day has come and gone, now is the time of the year where that original content is prestige, award-hopeful films. With Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 and David Fincher's Mank coming later in the year, and past the release of Charlie Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things, this past week saw the release of Antonio Campos' The Devil All The Time, a southern gothic epic starring basically every young and talented white actor working nowadays, such as *takes deep breath* Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgard, Sebastian Stan, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Harry Melling, Haley Benett, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, and Robert Pattinson. 

The film spans two generations during the 1940's through 1960's in the American South as the film is about the cyclical and generational cycle of religion and violence. Early in the film, Bill Skasgard's Willard, a soldier in the Korean War, comes across a fellow soldier that has been tortured and crucified. Willard comes home from the War with PTSD (never explicitly said, but shown through Skarsgard superb acting). A nice fellow, but clearly haunted by both his religious past and his overseas experiences. We see his tendencies, both pure and evil, passed down to his son Alvin, the older version of the character is played by Holland, ostensibly the film's lead but feels like he doesn't show up until two hours into the film. Along the way we meet Charlotte (Benett) who eventually becomes Willard's wife and Alvin's mother, Alvin's step-sister Lenora (Scanlen), Lenora's mother Helen (Wasikowska), Helen's pastor beau Roy (Melling), a cop named Lee (Stan), Lee's sister Sandy (Keough), Sandy's husband Carl (Clarke), and a flashy snake-in-the-grass preacher named Preston Teagardin (Pattinson). 

If that sounds like a lot of characters to juggle, that's because it is. The film does a great job introducing you and spending time with all of these characters, and I thought the third act does an excellent job bringing all of these characters and storylines together. I found these characters and subplots fascinating and compelling, but the film doesn't get a chance to let them breathe. Scenes themselves are rushed and plot points are introduced very quickly because the movie needs to keep things moving to keep its relatively long run time as short as it is. I don't think the critiques of this movie suggesting it should have been a mini-series (or even just go all out and make it a 3 or 4 hour sprawling epic) are unfounded, because the time spent with these people is time well-spent, and it would have allowed Campos to further explore the themes he just touches on.

Another trick the film does to keep itself moving is to have a narrator. I don't necessary buy the seemingly general movie-writing consensus that narration is lazy screenwriting. I even wrote a blog post about this topic in 2015. Some of the greatest films of all time like Goodfellas and The Shawshank Redemption use narration successfully. But holy fucking shit is the narration in this movie awful. Like, distractingly bad. The narrator overtly tells you what characters are thinking and why major plot points happen the way that they do. You still need to use the characters on screen to show, and not tell. Another pro-argument for making this project longer. It actually would have improved the final project, and it would have deepened the characters and the audience's attachment to them. 

As The Devil All The Time's title implies, this is a film about bad people doing bad things. The perfect encapsulation of what the film is is when Tom Holland's Alvin utters, as seen in the trailer, "Excuse me preacher, you got time for a sinner?" As it turns out, Alvin says this ironically to Robert Pattinson's Preston Teagardin. The people who are presented as Men of Faith are the worst offenders and the further away someone believes in God in the movie, the better of a person they are presented as being. Pattinson's character in particular is deliciously devious. He chews scenery like he's at an all-you-can-eat movie buffet. We may have never have known this after his role in the Twilight franchise, but Pattinson is sneakily one of the best young actors working today. He pops off of the screen, even if he's just giving a condescending speech about eating chicken livers. His performance is elevated by the choice he used for the character's voice, something he surprised Campos with on his first day of filming. I get the impression Campos wasn't pleased with it, but I thought it was the first in a long list of choices that make him a strong contender to earn Best Supporting Actor nominations.

I'm always impressed with the voices Tom Holland's characters use in films, considering this is what his voice sounds like IRL. His southern accent in the film is remarkable to me, but I didn't think his performance as a whole was anything to write home about. I only bring this up, because Twitter seems to think it was Award-Worthy as well. I suspect it is because they are so used to seeing him as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, that this dramatic leading turn is a pleasant surprise. I don't mean to suggest that Holland was bad in the film in any way, far from it, but I do not agree with the public social media sentiment that I've seen about his performance. 

As of the writing of this post, the film is 66% on Rotten Tomatoes. Still technically "fresh", but also a lot of people have problems with it. I would agree with that assessment. I don't disagree with the negative reviews I've seen of the movie, but to me, they're just the opposite side of the coin of "It's good, but flawed." The dark, gothic cinematography is gorgeous to look it, and the production design is incredible. The simple, yet realistic fashion choices are great as well, and I would encourage you to later check out Esquire's wonderful piece on the cyclical nature of fashion, and how the clothes in the film seem to mirror contemporary styles. I agree a lot with's review of the film from Brian Tallerico, especially when he writes, "Give me a movie that bites off more than it can chew any time over one that doesn't bite at all." The film is gloriously ambitious, but that ambition doesn't equal a more perfect project. I enjoyed the violent and religious themes of the story, even if at many points they came across as heavy-handed. I feel like I've shit on this movie a lot during this review, and again, it does have some obvious faults, but I really enjoyed it and would recommend watching it in the dark with your phone in another room. Let the mood the film projects baptize you in all of its violent glory.