Now playing on Netflix, a threatening cast of characters is about to collide in The Devil All the Time. The film tested Aaron Yap’s patience waiting for the dots to connect, but amid the vortex of violence, he’s got praise for a live-wire, angsty Tom Holland taking hammers to bullies and Robert Pattinson sleazing up the screen with a lip-smacking preacher performance for the ages.
With his last three features (Afterschool, Simon Killer and Christine—all piercingly stark yet deeply empathetic studies of sociopaths and misfits), Antonio Campos gradually carved a little niche for himself as arguably the nearest thing American cinema has to a Michael Haneke.
While The Devil All the Time hasn’t lost his willingness to cast his icy lens to the bleaker spaces of the human condition, this chunky stew of Southern Gothic miserablism does mark a pronounced, exponential shift for the filmmaker into more “accessible” territory, ambitiously tackling a knotty, multi-generational, ensemble sprawl that’s slightly out of his wheelhouse. The cast, too, is his largest yet, consisting of no less than five actors who’ve appeared in recent superhero/comic book properties.
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A depraved Faulkner-esque bedtime fable about the Evil That Men Do, it is the least of his films to date. Occasionally, when it’s showing its structural seams, the film comes across like a backwater period version of those ‘90s Pulp Fiction mosaic-obsessed knock-offs. The stuff with Jason Clarke and Riley Keogh—playing a psycho-killer couple getting their kicks off photographing and murdering male hitchhikers across the Midwest—never feels naturally integrated into the rest of the plot, and as such, can test our patience as we wait for all the dots to connect.
The Devil All the Time is bloody dark, a litany of punishing misfortune and tragedy, but the psychological acuity Campos excelled at in his early character studies is rendered diffuse here due to the quilt-like storytelling. And the thankless dispatch of key female characters, which in his other films might serve to address and interrogate toxic masculinity, rings hollow here, especially considering the tremendous talent on display.
That said, if you have the disposition to accommodate something like the artfully overwrought register of Martin Koolhoven’s underseen Brimstone, The Devil All the Time might be Campos at his most openly entertaining. Men spiralling into an inescapable vortex of violence, scored to rollicking fifties-sixties country blues and gospel. A live-wire, angsty Tom Holland taking hammers to bullies. Robert Pattinson sleazing up the screen with a lip-smacking preacher performance for the ages. And Donald Ray Pollock—who wrote the novel—cosily narrating the whole thing? The icing on this putrid cake.