Director Antonio Campos is well known for making films that deal unabashedly with the dark and morbid. His new film The Devil All the Time continues the exploration of these themes, though it falls flat in not having a clear idea of what it wants to do with them. It is an irritatingly inconsistent film. Its tone and pacing vary wildly, and it lacks a clear direction. The result is a film that is not necessarily boring, but is instantly forgettable.
The film primarily follows the troubled Russell family between two towns in the Midwest of America after the second world war. The story, which is told over a period of 20 years, explores this family’s trials and tragedies against the backdrop of rural Christian fundamentalism. This is woven in with a subplot about a serial killing couple, who travel around kidnapping and murdering hitchhikers. Sounds interesting enough. But when these two threads converge in a violent but somewhat underwhelming climax, you can’t help but be disappointed. It’s clear that in having these disparate elements come together in such a way, the film is trying to make something intricate and clever. In fact, the meeting of the two worlds often seems forced and arbitrary, and the split throughout the film contributes to its lack of focus.
Much of the film seems underdeveloped. The slow pace during the first half of the film is used to establish certain themes and plot points but this is squandered by the blistering pace of the finale, which feels far too rushed.
For example, the film does suggest at points that it is trying to be a meditation on the corruptive power of religious fanaticism. This theme, which had been built so carefully throughout the start of the film, is quickly resolved and abandoned in the last act, making one wonder what the point of it was for the first 100 minutes of the film. It leaves the audience feeling cheated, and that is never a good thing.
Certain plot and stylistic choices are heavy handed. The voice over throughout the film is obnoxious and unnecessary; often explaining things that we have seen or are just about to see. Similarly, character deaths are done in a sloppy and ad hoc manner. A main character should only ever be killed off if the story warrants it and if it is done in a way that is impactful. In The Devil All the Time, central characters seem to die roughly every half hour simply to add some artificial tension and move the plot forward.
The film is not all bad. Once it stops trying to be a serious drama about religion in the final act and just descends into being a violent crime thriller it actually becomes somewhat engaging.
There are also some great performances. Robert Pattinson and Harry Melling, who both play unscrupulous preachers, bring a certain intensity and madness to their roles which gives a palpably creepy feeling to their scenes. Any good performances are, unfortunately, overshadowed by Tom Holland, who did not convincingly transform himself from a fresh-faced Hollywood star into the rugged midwestern labourer who he was supposed to be playing.
The Devil all the Time is fundamentally held back by a lack of focus and a lack of care. There are enough interesting ideas to perhaps fill a 90-minute thriller, but the film we are given is overlong and over-complicated, and a star-studded line up fails to redeem it. Ultimately, it is a disorganised disappointment.
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr
⭐⭐Rating: 2 out of 5.