“The Devil All the Time” is a puzzle not worth solving

Craig Odenwald, Staff Writer

Months without a big blockbuster in the theaters might make audiences forget why they went to their local cinemas in the first place. Some movies offer an escape, throwing viewers into worlds far different from their own. Others are reflections of this world, bringing dark things to light. Then there are the puzzles — films in which viewers are constantly trying to connect the dots to see how it all comes together in the end. Director Antoine Campos’s “The Devil All the Time” tries to be the latter, but its reach often far extends its grasp.

Based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock, “The Devil All the Time” is a post-World War II crime drama with an underutilized cast. The story revolves around Tom Holland’s magnetic and memorable performance of vengeful Arwin, a young man wrestling with the trauma his father inflicted upon their family after returning from World War II. “The Devil All the Time” is not just a post-war drama; it is a telling case study of religion gone wrong. For years, Arwin’s broken family has grappled with the influence of false doctrine and false preachers, and the arrival of Robert Pattinson’s scheming preacher, Preston Teagardin, doesn’t make things any easier.

Director Antoine Campos best juggles Pollock’s sprawling narrative in Arwin’s battle for his family’s souls against the crafty preacher, but he struggles to keep a consistent tone while managing the novel’s ups and downs. Another point of contention is that movies can never quite capture all the aspects of a book. Some movie adaptations, like “Lord of the Rings,” may bear exception, but others, like 2013’s “The Great Gatsby,” which choose to narrate their movies with dialogue lifted directly from the book. Campos indulges in this narration trick, too, as Pollock himself narrates the inner thoughts of each character.

What may have been well-intentioned makes the film feel as if it fails to trust its audience to figure things out for themselves. There is barely a stretch in this film where a character stands alone, without Pollock’s grumbly voice declaring their emotions, conflict, or indecisiveness. Not only does the viewer have to keep up with all the intertwining plot threads of a lengthy narrative, they also have to contend with the vexing voice that begins to talk over the character’s dialogue.

While Campos’s cast shines, it never truly gets to breathe. “The Devil All the Time” boasts a stellar group and an intriguing story, but it is constantly at war with itself as to whether the film is a puzzle worth solving.

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