On September 16, “The Devil All the Time,” a horror-thriller movie adapted from Donald Ray Pollock’s novel of the same name, was released exclusively on Netflix. Directed by Antonio Campos and starring Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Robert Pattinson, Sebastian Stan, Elizabeth Scanlen, Harry Melling, and Riley Keough, the movie follows intertwining stories that explore the extent of religious faith and delusion in the era of post-World War II Ohio and West Virginia. However, despite the cast’s vivid performances and noteworthy post-production editing, “The Devil All the Time” inadequately incorporates dimensional elements to complement its gory plot.
Throughout the movie, Pollock’s third-person omniscient narrations and sequential repetitiveness cushion the shock during numerous scenes. For a horror movie that is dependent on the element of surprise, this excessive use of foreshadowing and rationalization diverts from the thrilling, fear-inducing suspense that viewers seek. (SPOILER ALERT) For instance, when Helen leaves her daughter with her friends to go pray with her husband in the woods, the narrator announces how Helen’s tragic fate will unfold. This strategy merely gains temporary sympathy from the audience while trading away an opportunity that would have otherwise caused their hearts to skip a beat.
Right off the bat, “The Devil All the Time” presents itself as a commentary on religion, sin, and delusion—a triple threat combination that could have easily made it one of the best psychological thrillers of the year. However, a sudden theme shift in the middle of the movie makes the strong messages it initially paraded feel lackluster at the end. (SPOILER ALERT) Take the unsatisfactory ending scene, for example. The helpful actions of the van driver and the main character’s hopeful daydreaming convey a message that delusions and paranoia, not devotion to religion, can lead to peace and kindness in the end. The switch to more positive messages steers the focus away from a cynical commentary on religion and undermines the intense build-up of the initial themes throughout the movie.
With Netflix’s generous production budget, it is reassuring that the casting and post-production editing steer clear from burdening the movie with any more negative critics. The star-studded list of actors undoubtedly constructs a sturdy foundation for the movie with their convincing portrayals, which are only enhanced by the film scoring and sound mixing. (SPOILER ALERT) One of the most notable performances is Pattinson’s character: a treacherous preacher whose predatory and manipulative actions trigger the plot’s spiral into merciless revenge. When Pattinson delivers his opening line in an impeccable Southern accent, all preconceptions of him as his past roles evaporate at once. Other memorable performances include Melling’s character, Roy, another disturbing evangelical who sends chills down spines when he pours a bottle of crawling spiders onto his own face while preaching his distorted perception of fear.
However, even with a cast of talented actors, the movie itself had no way to make up for the handful of underdeveloped characters in the story. For most of them, there’s just a lack of well-founded internal conflict—take Sandy, half of the psycho-serial-killer duo. (SPOILER ALERT) There’s a scene in which she’s sitting in a car, crying and contemplating her relationship with her husband Carl, thus demonstrating her reluctance to go along with his crimes. That being said, nowhere in the movie is there an explanation as to how or why she was even convinced to be an accomplice to his horrendous killing scheme in the first place, effectively leaving the development and solidification of their relationship a mystery. Additionally, the audience does not get to watch Sandy’s slow descent into the immoral abyss; we only get to see her try to crawl her way out. In a way, without the context to set the foundation of her development, her storyline throughout the movie does not live up to its potential.
It’s like they always say: the book was better. Proving that point once again, the movie adaptation of “The Devil All the Time” takes a cast, crew, and promising premise, and waters it all down to only the goriest and basic elements of the plot, creating a violent-centric bloodlust film.
But, with the ingenuity of the book’s storyline alone, who knows what kind of heights it would have reached had it been adapted as a gruesome, slice-of-life TV show. Multiple parts allow transitions between plot points to flow smoother; longer run time brings the opportunity of nuanced character development—the list of benefits goes on. Maybe some books aren’t meant to be movies.