Growing up, my dad would show me a lot of movies that he would insist were classics in his time but we would both realize throughout the duration of the film that they either hadn’t aged well at all or just plain kinda sucked and didn’t make sense. That’s basically how watching Netflix’s latest, The Devil All the Time feels. Outside of the fact that it was released just this week and features an inexplicably star-studded cast of Hollywood’s ripest up-and-comers, the whole thing feels of a different time… a time when you could get away with vaguely traceable narrative ties and oversimplified, ham-fisted messages that don’t seem to make any tangible commentary on the world we live in today or at the very least, what we can learn from the days gone by.
Simply put: I spent the whole movie saying, “huh? What the fuck is this?”
It’s the latest entry in the Netflix oeuvre of movies “so serious, all the actors probably had their faces scrunched, even when the cameras weren’t rolling,” joining the ranks of The Cloverfield Paradox, Outlaw King, The Outsider and The King. Netflix is both perpetuating and simultaneously the victim of the notion that “really fucking serious = quality.” I’m not saying something heavy can’t be good but just make sure that while you make something heavy, that you also make it, you know, good.
I guess the biggest “message” of the movie is that people use their faith as a way to justify their shitty actions and behaviors or possibly at least feel better about them? It’s such an obvious cautionary idea that I’m fairly certain nearly every major religious text warns against in some fashion. And that’s what so frustrating, from the moment the movie starts, we get it; boy, oh boy, do we get it. This is nothing new. This is not an innovative take on the idea. This is just that one, simple idea, illustrated in the most cartoonish fashion possible.
Because the book is set in West Virginia during the mid-40’s through early 60’s, and director Antonio Campos is so reverent to the text, the movie is set then and there as well but you can tell he’s screaming at the audience, “just pretend it’s the Deep South! Deep South, okay?! Please!! Deep South!”
Everything plays like it was made by someone who only knows about Southern culture from Hollywood touchstones. The folks are God-fearin’, Bible readin’, baby producin’, hand workin’, renegade justicin’ folks who may not know much about books and math and the finer things and whatnot but they sure do know a thing or two about what’s right and what’s wrong. The first act of the movie tells the audience it takes place just off the heels of World War II but clearly wants to paint a picture of life in the late 1800’s and because this takes place in the make-believe, Hollywood version of the South, that’s just fine.
Characters do things like grab their children by the hair and smack ‘em around when they stop payin’ attention to their prayers for like one second, sacrifice their dog to please their almighty, vengeful God, and theatrically dump jars of spiders on their face in front of a congregation to illustrate just how deep their faith runs, because, again, we have to pretend this is really the South in the 1800’s. The whole thing feels like a movie you would look up online after watching and find out won Best Picture in 1959 for its unflinching portrayal of gritty southern culture but has just about 0 relevance or believability today.
So, in spite of all these glaring flaws, what’s most jaw-dropping about this movie is its stacked cast. It’s led by Tom Holland, so he can show off his tough, brooding side, but features performances from Bill Skarsgård (somehow as an ol’ fashioned southern man, despite looking like he’s straight out of Scandinavia or possibly another galaxy), Haley Bennett, Robert Pattinson, the notoriously choosey & indie-driven Riley Keough, Sebastian Stan, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke and Eliza Scanlen, essentially a highlight gallery of Hollywood’s soon-to-be and existing premier movie stars, all in relatively throwaway roles. What about this movie made them say, “this, right here: this is the movie worth spending a month shooting in Alabama for,” despite the roles being incredibly flimsy? Is it just one of those things that they wanna have on their highlight reel?
Sebastian Stan, famous for being a handsome, fit dude, gained weight for his role in this movie. He gained weight for it! He’s chubby in this movie! This throwaway performance was somehow important enough to him that he decided it was gonna be worth it for him to go through the process of putting on and then losing weight after production wrapped. Why would someone be so dedicated to something so profoundly mediocre?! It’s baffling! Most of these esteemed performers are killed off after just a few scenes! And not in a Brad-Pitt-in-Burn After Reading kind of way where they get to absolutely crush it in like three or four scenes and then get killed, but rather, they just show up, aren’t given much to do and then drop dead. It’s mind-boggling. Who hypnotized these actors into doing this movie? The Hollywood hypnotist that Netflix hired deserves a massive raise.
So, what is this movie really about, other than: boy, oh boy, Southern folk sure do like to murder each other over seemingly nothing, with very little follow-up from law enforcement? It’s being marketed as some kind of Southern Gothic, religious thriller that’s posited as Tom Holland’s quiet, gruff, tough guy vs. Robert Pattinson’s creepy, flamboyant, corrupt preacher. And, yes, that is a part of the movie, but honestly, not a huge part, or at least not as huge as the movie wants it to seem. The trailer would have you believe that this is a slow-burn showdown between the two ideologically opposed characters over the course of two hours and 15 minutes that ends in a bloody eruption, in the style of Tarantino. On one end, you have Tom Holland as the only non-God-fearin’ man in town, who just might have a clearer sense of right & wrong than any of these church-goin’ folks and on the other end, you have Robert Pattinson as the charmingly intense preacher who just rolled into town but uses his reverence and stature to manipulate and exploit his congregation both sexually and mentally. Oh baby… we got a showdown!
Except we don’t.
I’m all for a slow burn movie but sometimes you burn so slowly, there isn’t enough match for all the flame you want to show. There’s so much prolonged setup, trying to explain who the characters are and why they will become who they will one day become, that the movie is left hastily playing catchup once the story is supposed to get rolling. We meet Tom Holland about 45 minutes into the movie and Pattinson about 15 minutes after that. That leaves an hour and 15 minutes left to put these characters at odds, let it simmer, boil and build, then explode and then wrap it all up; not to mention all of the various side story breadcrumbs you’re fed along the way. There’s not enough time. In The Irishman, it’s okay that there’s 50 minutes of prologue and backstory before we meet Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa because the movie is 3.5 hours long: we’ve still got plenty of time to spend with him, baby! (What a betrayal of everything I hold dear, to use a Scorsese movie as an ideological benchmark.) But in The Devil All the Time, we don’t have nearly that much time to spend with these characters and thus, no one is given enough time for us to connect with them.
This brings me to something that really pains me to write… this should have been a miniseries. I respect the hell out of Campos for adapting this book as a movie. Movies rule. Movies are king. There’s just nothing quite like telling a knockout story within the confines of the medium of cinema. I’ve seen some very good miniseries (that word is singular & plural?) before and have thoroughly enjoyed them but when you can perfectly puzzle together a story into a movie, that’s just what does it for me, and I can tell that Campos feels similarly; he helmed the anthology miniseries The Sinner a few years ago and still felt that this book would only be done justice as a movie. I respect his dedication to the medium.
But here’s the thing: if you’re adapting a book into a movie, you gotta take some liberties. You gotta turn this into a movie and not just a book on screen; there’s not enough time for that. Books are long. Movies are short. It’s not a seamless transition. Campos is far too reverent to the original text to make this into a movie. He doesn’t want to ditch any of the narrative threads and I get it, because as soon as you start making changes, every douche who read the book will pop up, out of the woodwork to say, “but, but, but, it was different in the book!!” Some people just don’t understand that books and cinema are two different artistic media that have different storytelling needs.
The reality is, when adapting a book into a movie, a few douchebag bookworms’ heads gotta roll. Just keep your eyes on the road. Otherwise you end up doing multiple scenes with two serial killer characters that don’t seem to have any relevance to the story until an epilogue scene that makes you go, “huh, so that’s why they were in the movie… okay.” And when you do get to the very rushed confrontation between Holland and Pattinson, you might say to yourself “wait, I think this is the first time these characters have even spoken to each other. And I’m pretty sure Robert Pattinson has only been in like two scenes before this.”
Quick aside: Robert Pattinson sucks in this movie. I know he’s the one thing everyone is praising about it and is one of the big draws to watching it for a lot of people, but he’s just not good. Just because you’re really “going for it” in a role, doesn’t mean it’s good. I know right now it’s a la mode to celebrate every strange thing Robert Pattinson does in a movie because “he used to be in silly vampire movies and now he does weird things!” That’s cool, I get it; but, like I was saying before, when you’re being weird, you should also try to be, you know, good? Believable? Not a major fucking distraction? You get the idea. I’d bet Campos wasn’t overly thrilled with the direction Pattinson took the character but was likely too nervous to tell him that he was… bad at his job. At least that’s what I hope.
If you want to make a book into a movie, you need to run it through the movie machine, you need to pull it apart and figure out what’s cinematic about it and run with that. And while I respect Campos for trying to maintain the integrity of the book, it does his movie no service, trying to tell a story it can’t maintain the breadth of.
When I set up this blog that exists for no reason other than for me to read my own opinions that I agree with, I wanted to try my best not to be negative, in case anyone else ever read it. There’s so much negativity out on the internet, I hoped to try my best to try to find things that I could champion and celebrate. At worst, I wanted to take a deep dive into something I didn’t like or relate to and poke & probe at it to see why it bothered me. My intention was never to just fully dump on something but… The Devil All the Time might have left me more confused after watching it than any movie in recent memory, and not confused in the good, Christopher Nolan, kind of way but confused as to what the fuck it is and why it exists. I know a lot of hard-working people came together and tried their best to make this a success and I respect them for that. I hope in the future that they continue working and make things that are great, whether I like them or not.
But I did not like this. At all.