“The Devil All the Time” was the most grim and depressing experience I’ve endured in years. The biggest issue with the film is that it doesn’t attempt to provide any insight into what spawns evil behavior, rather it simply portrays some people as born to be sinful. I’ve never been forced to share time with characters of such despicable nature for so long – the film is an indulgent length of over two hours, and the pacing doesn’t really pick up until the last half hour. We simply revel in the banal immorality of a few post-WWII towns in Midwestern America. There’s a disturbed war veteran, a couple of serial killers, and a false preacher. Every minute of the film is saturated in dread, grief, and violence.
“The Devil All the Time” is unmistakably a visceral experience; I threw a pillow at the TV at one point. I hated virtually all of these characters, and I had never rooted harder for characters to die in a story. Tom Holland gives a good performance as one of the few virtuous and indignant people in the entire story. I was thrilled when he went on an unintentional crusade, putting an end to the antagonists’ disgusting behaviors. I wish the film had been more intelligent in its portrayal of disturbed individuals. For instance, the preacher is malicious and manipulative, and he successfully seduces young women into having sex with him. This is sort of a trope with religious figures in film, but I had hoped the film would do more than just make me watch him engage in despicable behavior. Rather than exploring why his victims might be prone to obeying his orders and what caused his addiction to exploiting younger women, we’re simply meant to hate him (which I did). We’re led to believe that as a handsome and seemingly holy guy, he’s just very tempting. It’s just not very interesting.
There’s also an off-putting critique of religion. It only makes sense that Christianity would play a large role in the story, given the environment it takes place in. All of the characters are (or claim to be) Christian, and there’s a clear indication that the author of the screenplay (and possibly the book, though I haven’t read it) believes that religious zeal makes people highly impressionable and can lead to maniacal extremism. This could lead to an interesting psychological study amongst contrasting characters, but the film only shows one point of view of religious devotion. It simplifies the position of good vs evil in a highly ignorant way, almost insinuating that people of faith are unable to comprehend or cope with feelings of anguish. It ends up with the audience being unable to relate to any of the characters, as they perform desperate and incomprehensible actions that are simply meant to make us sink further into hopelessness and misery. I didn’t find that experience to be useful at all, and that method of storytelling grew tiring as the film dragged on.
In the end, the most unbearable aspect of “The Devil All the Time” is that the filmmakers chose to value capturing suffering over capturing life. One does not need to weight every scene with thematic importance, nor do they need to show so much death to make us feel sorrowful. One might think that the title was taken a bit too literally. The cinematography and direction are good, but how much praise can I give when I think the creative team missed out on creating a compelling experience? I’m disappointed that themes like religion, gun violence, sexual violence, mental health, and good vs evil were relegated to such basic plots and unsympathetic characters. Perhaps there were too many themes and an overall lack of focus? It signals a boring cynicism towards human nature. It suggests that malevolence is all-consuming and can’t be reformed. I can’t even say I’m interested in reading the book. I certainly wouldn’t want to be forced to feel so much disgust again. I can hate human nature on my own time.