- The Devil All the Time
- Directed by Antonio Campos
- Written by Antonio Campos and Paulo Campos, based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock
- Starring Tom Holland, Sebastian Stan and Robert Pattinson
- Classification R; 138 minutes
“Some people are born just so they can be buried.” So goes one of the most memorable lines in Donald Ray Pollock’s 2011 novel The Devil All the Time, a hard-boiled epic of American immorality spread across generations. Those words – a perfect encapsulation of the quick-witted Pollock’s dim view of humanity – are uttered once more in director Antonio Campos’s adaptation for Netflix. And by no less than Pollock himself, who was enlisted by the filmmaker to narrate the on-screen action. But while the proclamation was only one of many so-morbid-it’s-cheeky sentences to pepper Pollock’s work, in Campos’s film, it is just about the only thing that sticks.
Mostly, Campos is too obsessed with aping Pollock’s molasses-thick style and compressing too many timelines into too thin a feature. The result is that the particularly cruel delights of Pollock’s writing get lost in an adaptation that can never nail any of its sprawling cast of characters, or escape the Southern-fried clichés that the novel transcends.
Spanning decades, The Devil All the Time tells the tales of a handful of backwoods families whose lives are defined by murder and hate. There is a Second World War veteran (Bill Skarsgard) who comes back from the front lines horrified. His tough-as-nails son Arvin, who grows up to be played by Tom Holland. A lawman (Sebastian Stan) with a corruption problem. His sociopathic sister (Riley Keough) who takes up serial killing with a crazed amateur photographer (Jason Clarke). A holy roller (Robert Pattinson) who definitely does not practise what he preaches. And then a half-dozen other characters who either deliver outrageous acts of violence or suffer at the hands of those who do – or both.
It is all dark, depressing and unrelenting, though with a steadier directorial hand and a sharper, smarter, knowingly sleazier script, an adaptation could have provided some grimy entertainment, as if Cormac McCarthy got high and went to the county fair. Instead, Campos and his co-writer, brother Paolo, treat the material as if it were prestige Oscar bait, vacuuming up all the down-in-the-dirt excess of Pollock’s novel.
Combine that with performances that vary wildly in tone and intent – Pattinson and an ever-sweaty Clarke seem to know just what kind of perverse fun they’re supposed to be having, while Holland just stares blankly ahead, waiting for something to happen – and you have an adaptation that may be full of crime, but also too much punishment. Best to bury this Devil in an unmarked grave.
The Devil All the Time is available to stream on Netflix starting Sept. 16
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