Director Antonio Campos is obsessed with the sudden eruption of violence. He made a whole movie about it. Campos’ 2016 film Christine is all about Christine Chubbuck, the TV reporter who shot herself at an anchor desk on live TV in a moment of traumatised confusion the film never had any hope of explaining, because the antecedents to that moment were diffuse and difficult to understand. The surprise of Chubbuck’s act clearly captivated Campos, and he seems to have been searching to comprehend his own reaction to it. Of course, only the people who watched that broadcast were surprised. The people who watched the film surely knew it was coming, if they knew anything about Christine Chubbuck.
Campos seems to double down on trying to create that sensation of surprise in his audience for The Devil All the Time, his new Netflix movie and adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s book. The thing is, sudden eruptions of violence cease to surprise when there’s one doled out every ten minutes of a 140-minute movie. Furthermore, these acts – often craven and perverse in their logic – cease to hold any meaning after about the third. Given that the film features an ever-shifting and meandering series of main characters, across several time periods presented non-sequentially over two decades, eventually the only thing connecting anything to anything else is this tapestry of mayhem.
If this were just an exercise in miserabilism that would be something. Many a past director has made movies that dwell in the depths of human wretchedness, and many more will. But The Devil All the Time also has a distasteful black comic tinge to it, one that doesn’t sufficiently convince us it’s in on the joke. It’s also stuffed with sentimental Appalachian music relying heavily on strings, both jaunty and mournful, neither of which correctly capture the tone it’s stumbled into. Not to mention an unending stream of narration by none other than the novel’s author, which just adds another layer to the many existing layers of self-indulgence.
Adapting with his brother Paulo, Campos has attempted to recreate the elliptical rhythms of a novel by starting a story, returning to some previous moment that helps explain it, and then looping back to the original moment. Except at the time these occur, even with the “help” of Pollock’s voiceover, it’s not entirely clear that’s what’s going on. So after about a ten-minute diversion we’re back to where we started with a sort of “Oh.” Choices like this, while executed with a modicum of fluidity overall, make it difficult to get fully oriented in what’s going on.
What’s going on relates to a number of characters in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, starting only a few years after the end of World War II. The narration belabours the significance of the roads between the film’s several primary locations, but never follows through with any proof of the Southern gothic sense of doom it heaps upon them. Bad things happen, but the roads themselves surely have nothing to do with it.
The characters include a returned war veteran (Bill Skarsgard) who has his eye on a cafeteria waitress (Haley Bennett), the veteran’s eventual grown son (Tom Holland), a pair of murderers (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) who pick up hitchhikers and photograph them having sex with Keough’s character before killing them, a corrupt sheriff (Sebastian Stan) who is her brother, a false preacher (Robert Pattinson) who fixates on a teenage girl (Eliza Scanlen), and another false preacher (Harry Melling) who has strange ideas about his own capacity for resurrection. He’s married to Mia Wasikowska. The characters frequently connect in unexpected ways, though the narrative jumps around so much that you often forget whether they actually knew each other previously or not.
You might expect that the sudden eruptions of violence are all deaths, but that accounts for only about 50 percent of them. There are just as many savage beatings in which characters are nearly suffocated by paper bags or by their face getting smashed into the mud. It’s like The Devil All the Time is smashing its viewers’ own faces into that mud, but kind of expecting them to laugh between moments of shock as they gasp for breath. And watch out, because if humans aren’t safe, neither are animals. You won’t want to know what animal is strung up on a cross as a sacrifice, but it rhymes with “bog.”
It should be said that this all looks beautiful. The production designers and cinematographer Lol Crowley have recreated and photographed the period immaculately. There’s a basic visual panache that keeps you going from one atrocity to the next.
But what is this film trying to say? To what purpose does this movie sacrifice all these people and animals? Is the message that people are awful and will continue to do awful things to each other without provocation or excuse?
It’s probably a coincidence that three of the male leads (Holland, Stan and Pattinson) have recently played, or will soon be playing, superheroes. You’d expect to find a sense of optimism about human nature at least in the fresh face of the erstwhile Spider-Man. Perhaps we should take our cues from the fourth lead, Bill Skarsgard, who played Pennywise the Clown. That’s more the level of sadistic and pointless misery disgorged by The Devil All the Time.