“Blessed…are they who hunger and thirst…for righteousness.”
Whether it be a couple of cold ones, a couple of poachers, some unsuspecting hitchhikers, predatory preachers, or corrupt ne’er-do-wells, the people of Knockemstiff, Ohio certainly live up to their town’s namesake. The Devil All the Time is my third most anticipated film of 2020, behind Dune and Tenet—you may recall I brought up Antonio Campos‘s adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock‘s 2011 debut novel at the beginning of the year, but that was a simpler time. Having finished the novel a few months ago, and now having finally seen the film, I mostly stand by my initial prediction: a twisted tale hopefully not too dissimilar to True Detective and Southern Bastards. This hotly anticipated southern gothic-feeling 2020 film circles around post-WWII God-fearing Appalachian red state southern Ohio/West Virginia; America’s backyard home to false prophets, sex offenders, natural born killers, torture porn fetishes, ritual-obsessed war veterans, and many other characters. A film sure to disturb the feint of heart with its grotesque, haunting, stench-riddled, sacrificial, rape and murderous-prone writhe down the beaten dirt path to unlikely redemption. After all, “Some people were born just so they could be buried.” So did it live up to my own hyped expectations?
As I try my best to do with anything I’m excited for, I avoided the trailers for Netflix’s latest star-studded film. An entire bevy of notable names is present in what is arguably one of the years most stacked casts—takes a deep breath—starring: Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett, Mia Wasikowska, Eliza Scanlen, and Harry Melling. Despite boasting a 138-minute runtime, I think Campos’s senior feature effort and its complex slew of characters would have largely benefited from an HBO miniseries model. Within the first 45-minutes alone—the first act—I noticed a handful of differences and omitted character development sections lost in adaptation. Without entering any spoiler territory, I’ll leave it at the shift from a more sporadic episodic nature filled with plenty of time for individual marination into an expected streamlined linear narrative for the sake of non-readers. In presenting this very religiously soaked road trip through Red Appalachia in a straightforward nature, I do strongly believe that it loses a lot of the dynamism. A large portion of my enjoyment when reading the novel came from trying to piece how all these twisted individuals’ tormented stories were going to coalesce. The plot still works, and author Donald Ray Pollock’s narration ensures you do not get lost, but as a reader it surely left me with some unfulfilled desires.
While I’ve only seen one of Campos’s films, Christine, it’s abundantly clear that he is an actor’s director. It truly feels like he offers his actors plenty of room to breathe and work with the inner machinations of their respective characters; like Rebecca Hall‘s awards-worthy tour de force performance in Christine, it’s the wide array of personalities that carry The Devil All the Time. Whether it be Pattinson’s treacherously manipulative paedophile preacher, Clarke & Keough’s sex and death fetish Natural Born Killers, Stan’s oaffish corrupt small-town sheriff, Skarsgård’s war-tormented ritual sacrificing veteran, or Holland admirably yet unconvincingly trying his best to break from the goody two shoes high school Webhead, half of the cast is given at least a moment to chew it up. Unfortunately, I literally mean “a moment,” as I’d argue each of them may amass to half of the development and despicable nature that the novel fleshes them out to be. The other half of the cast is sadly relegated to very minimal roles I can see viewers complaining about, particularly the female characters. I was very sad not to have gotten all the torturous sexcapades between Carl & Sandy. The only one really worth mentioning is the seemingly effortless Pattinson, who just like in his previous Netflix collaboration, The King, takes his sweet time engaging, tasting, and sweating with the set. The hallmark saying that the book is always better than the movie certainly rings true here, most particularly in how much darker, perverted, and filled with thoughtful prose the literature is.
On the technical side, I was frankly disappointed by Lol Crawley‘s rather ordinary cinematography. This material certainly called for the same tone and vibe that Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Joji Fukunaga accomplished with the masterful first season of True Detective. The overall aesthetic seemed very pale and sterile for what I imagined to be warmer and far more covered in blood and dirt. Jurriaans & Bensi‘s score also left much to be desired given the dark and bleak nature of Pollock’s brutally unforgiving world. In a similar tone, I’m sure comparisons to Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers will be made: both of which united to make one of the best films of the 21st century, No Country for Old Men. Despite wishing it so, Devil is not on that same level at all, unfortunately restricted by its long yet not long enough runtime, and the pacing having too much to bounce around with; the middle hour (~45:00-1:45:00) will more than likely test some audiences’ patience.
While this may read as overly negative of the film, I admire Campos’s attempt to craft what is undeniably an unenviable task. As is with many a literary source material, trying to both fit every element and say something original proves nearly impossible, but I just can’t look over how tame and literally linear the film adaptation became. To me, it felt as if Campos tried to be both respectful of the source material and depict something new audiences can follow, but in doing so stripped away too much of what made it special. It’s hard to please both readers and viewers. What should have been hardcore in gore, nudity, rape, mutilation, and murder, just felt far too clean and rushed for my tastes. I recall having to put the novel down sometimes just to digest and imagine the full picture of what I just read; all those grim thoughts, grisley visuals, and depraved philosophies were either absent or far too censored and dressed-up. Aside from the poor pacing and restructured narrative format, I do think the film is solid. But that in itself proves to be another penultimate problem, seeing how with such a capable cast and a great story, under a talented director like Antonio Campos, this should have been a surefire southern gothic banger. As was joked amongst my colleagues in the group chat, “I Saw the Devil Some of the Time” is quite apropos of how sanitised this adaptation feels.
By the end of the disappointingly tame drive through Knockemstiff—despite my strong preference for the novel—I do think Campos and company still get the primary thesis down: the sins of the father pass down to the son without bias, and no matter what you do nor if you believe or not, we all end up in the same place six feet under. For the Devil works all the time, and he comes to collect without prejudice.
C+ Review 2020 antonio campos bill skarsgard cary joji fukunaga christine 2016 coen brothers cormac mccarthy danny bensi donald ray pollock dune eliza scanlen haley bennett harry melling jason clarke lol crowley mia wasikowska natural born killers netflix nic pizzolatto no country for old men rebecca hall riley keough robert pattinson saunder jurriaans sebastian stan tenet the devil all the time the king 2019 tom holland
Film Studies/History graduate, using my love and knowledge of the medium to pass as a critic. I’m typically known for longer write-ups, and my eclectic taste ranging from awards darlings, European filmé, indie spirits, cinematic universes, and most notably 80s cult films. Hope you’ve enjoyed your visit, and remember, watch whatever, whenever, with whomever.