As William Shakespeare famously wrote in his play The Tempest, “Hell is empty. And all the devils are here.” Words that the aptly titled The Devil All the Time greatly stresses as it portrays people either tapping into their worst instincts or embracing their inner demons. Even if the picture delves into the grim nature of humanity to the point where it becomes detrimental, The Devil All the Time still isn’t a piece of cinematic Hell.
Based on the novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time follows the life of Arvin Russell (Tom Holland) as he grows up in the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio and eventually crosses paths with a group of sinister figures; a predatorial preacher named Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), the psychopathic Carl (Jason Clarke) and Sandy Henderson (Riley Keough) who coerce unsuspecting victims into engaging in sexual activity before murdering them, and Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan), a sleazy sheriff. Additionally, Arvin grapples with living in the shadow of his PTSD-stricken father Willard (Bill Skarsgard) and acting as a protector for his love interest, the religious Lenora (Eliza Scanlen).
Arvin’s rather twisted coming-of-age tale of trying to figure out his place in this world is set within a hellscape of people preaching about being rightful to God while exercising immoral violence. Well, men preaching about such things in particular because the female characters get the short end of the stick. The actresses do a capable enough job at bringing their characters to life, but they’re still mostly written as ciphers with little to no agency. The one female character who’s arguably given the most development is Sandy who’s played wonderfully by Riley Keough. She meticulously expresses both Sandy’s cunningness and eventual culpability. Along with Keough, Eliza Scanlen stands out as the kindly Lenora, acting as a source of light within the omnipresent darkness.
While the actresses make the most of their underwritten characters, the actors get to delve deeper into the intricacies of theirs. The scene-stealer amongst them is likely Sebastian Stan as Lee. Although he’s not doing any grandstanding and doesn’t have as much screen time as his co-stars, Stan’s low-key charisma that masks a volcanic rage boiling beneath Lee’s facade leaves a constant impression. Tom Holland similarly portrays Arvin as a time bomb that bursts whenever his inner darkness, that Arvin forcefully tries burying, resurfaces. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Robert Pattinson is more openly insidious as the slimy and manipulative Preston. Even in his intro scene, it’s clear that Preston isn’t right in the head.
Pattinson doesn’t have to say anything, but from the get-go, it’s evident that Preston has devious intentions. His ability to use facial cues to indicate Preston’s behavior becomes an amazing contradiction to the film’s own screenplay which has narration spell out what the characters are doing and thinking even at moments where it’s unnecessary. That being said, the script’s inability to follow the phrase “show, don’t tell” still isn’t as bad as having (*spoiler alert*) a severely unneeded dog death.
That one death scene proves to be a chief example of how The Devil All the Time overemphasizes the awfulness of man despite serving as an indictment of toxic masculinity and religious hypocrisy. But thanks to the efforts of its actors including Stan, Pattinson, and Keough, the picture achieves near magnificence.