I hadn’t seen the trailer of the new film ‘The Devil All the Time’ before I decided to watch it on its Netflix debut day, so I didn’t know what to expect. Directed by Antonio Campus, this is a dark, disturbing film that stirred a myriad of emotions in me.
Based on a novel by the same name, the film starts with a voice-over by author Donald Ray Pollock. The narrator tells us about a small town called ‘Knockemstiff’ which had a population of just 400 back in 1957. The town’s name made me giggle, since it puns on “knock them stiff’. The first ten minutes are intriguing and focus on Willard Russel (played by Bill Skarsgard) and how he meets his wife.
Things soon start to get bizarre. On display is the religious zealotry at Willard’s local church, where the reverend passionately talks about the ‘holy ghost’ and the importance of prayer. In fact, Christian fanaticism is one of the central themes of this movie. The overall plot is about how the life of Willard’s young son Arvin Russel is influenced by those around him.
Tom Holland of Spiderman fame plays Arvin, who is deeply impacted by his parent’s deaths, especially due to the disturbing nature of their last days. While a young Arvin goes to live with his grandmother and his step-sister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), we see a parallel story about a serial killer couple on the loose in the same region.
The casting team has done a fantastic job, because each actor is eerily convincing in whatever little role they have. Most characters are evil and as a viewer you feel a revulsion towards them. Robert Pattinson completely disappears in his character’s skin – a sleazy, lustful, gluttonous priest who preys on young vulnerable women. You can’t see any traces of the vampire heart-throb. Holland is also authentic as the angry young man wanting nothing but to protect those close to him.
‘The Devil in the Dark’ works really well as a psychological thriller, there were several moments where I had my hands folded with anxiety over what would happen next. Not even a horror movie has made me flinch this much in the recent past. I think real evil people are always scarier than ghosts and demons. A lot of both mindless and well-intended killing happens throughout the course of the film. The scenes are raw, unbridled and troubling.
There is a chilling flashback scene in the very first 10 minutes, which shows Arvin’s father Willard serving in the war. He shoots a fellow soldier as an act of mercy, because he was tortured and crucified by the Japanese. That scene made me shudder.
The pacing of the film is a slight problem, while I won’t say it’s slow, there are some scenes that didn’t need any screen-time. There a ‘corrupt cop’ sub-plot that could’ve been shorter. Director Antonio puts in too much effort in giving everybody a substantial back-story. However, I liked how the makers stayed true to the dark tone and didn’t put in any unnecessary jokes in the story. The flip-side to it is that the film gets a little overbearing and can get emotionally draining after a while. Maybe take a little coffee/cola break in between. I did.
Given the somber setting of the entire film, it obviously doesn’t have a traditional happy ending, but to the screenwriter’s credit – it’s not ambiguous and disappointing either. While there are some things that happen early on that make the viewer wonder “why have this scene at all?”, it all ties down neatly in the climax and makes sense.
The cinematography and all the religious songs in the playback track just add to the whole dismal mood of the tale. You will hate a lot of what’s happening and that’s just the kind of response that’s expected out of the viewer. It astutely shows just how toxic and destructive religion can be. Each character has a complicated relationship with ‘God’ and the one who is the most religiously distant is interestingly the sanest one. Not sure if there was deliberate messaging here, but this film shows us the dark side of those who believe in the power of prayer.
To anybody looking for a dark thriller, this one makes a good watch. Don’t see it when you are feeling low, because ‘The Devil All The Time’ is not intended to give you a good time.
It’s a 7/10 for me.