Guys, you know how it is. You’re a man, a pitiless creature filled with demons, and you cannot stop yourself from resorting to violence. After all, it’s in your nature. Deep down, you’re an animal, an untamed beast, and that savage streak within you can never be contained. It’s not easy being a man.
The Devil All the Time is approximately 138 minutes of that message repeated over and over. As someone sympathetic to any film that delineates all the ways in which men are horrible — they’re despoilers of the planet, they’re a pestilence that must be stopped — I’m generally on board with a jet-black look at our worst tendencies. But it’s a delicate line you’re walking when you attempt a movie like this. Don’t do it right, and it looks like you’re luxuriating in all that manly-man anguish. Rather than condemning, it feels like you’re indulging. And that’s the bro-iest move of all.
Based on a book by Donald Ray Pollock, the film is directed and co-written by Antonio Campos, who knows a few things about misanthropic behavior. His divisive, terrific 2012 thriller Simon Killer followed along as an angry young American stormed his way through Paris, falling in love with a prostitute and hatching a plan to blackmail one of her clients. It’s a superb entry in the Men Are Shit subgenre because it hooked the viewer into its protagonist’s miserable worldview while simultaneously making it clear what a loathsome creature he was. We understood why some men are shit yet go through the world thinking that they’re not, which is perhaps the chief characteristic of shitty men.
Campos’ new film is far more self-serious and Gothic. It’s a tale of interlocking tragedies that span about 20 years. If you’re a character in The Devil All the Time, and you’re a man, you’re probably a killer or a psychopath or at the very least a creep. You’re eaten alive by your emotional wounds or living with a dark past. Everything is awful because, y’know, that’s the way things are, man. But despite the excellent cast and sharp look, the movie is a slog. Campos finds many uninteresting ways to remind us that men suck.
The film has a wide aperture, but its principal characters are Arvin (Tom Holland) and Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), who are bonded by tragedy. When she was a baby, Lenora lost her mother (Mia Wasikowska), who was murdered by her husband (Harry Melling), a disturbed religious man. Meanwhile, Arvin’s father (Bill Skarsgård) returned from World War II a shattered man. Devastated by the news that his sainted wife (Haley Bennett) was dying, he decided a sacrifice must be made to God to spare her life. If you’re someone who’s uncomfortable with the sight of dead dogs strung up on crosses, The Devil All the Time is not the film for you.
With these colorfully horrible backstories, it’s little wonder that Arvin and Lenora have grown up leaning on one another. And with good reason: The movie’s mid-century America of redneck small towns is filled with danger, sometimes in the form of libidinous reverends (Robert Pattinson), kinky couples who kill for sport (Riley Keough, Jason Clarke) or bad cops (Sebastian Stan). Nobody in The Devil All the Time is well-adjusted or remotely happy. The sun never shines in this world.
Hollywood has long been fascinated/repulsed by violence. For every giddy shoot-’em-up, there’s a film like Unforgiven, which studies the toll that killing takes on a man’s soul. But for those not feeling charitable, you could argue that even the anti-violence films are essentially selling violence — they’re just pretending to tsk-tsk it. A similar argument could be made that The Devil All the Time is parading humanity’s worst qualities because, deep down, we relish our own depravity. In the film, two different characters kill themselves, others meet horrible ends, and Campos is unflinching in arguing that, honestly, this is what wretches we truly are. (Also, a warped devotion to God will only expose your worst qualities.) But where a film like Simon Killer felt liberating and cathartic — startling us with the twisted mind at the story’s center — The Devil All the Time is pretty ho-hum. There’s no variation or shock to its horrors. You’ve seen this kind of darkness before, and better.
If it’s not clear that the film is trying to convey a meaningful message, just check out the performances. For a lot of viewers, this may be the first time they’ve seen Holland outside of his role as Spider-Man, and he’s not bad as Arvin, except that he (like everyone else in The Devil All the Time) is trying very hard to evince gritty, beaten-down hopelessness. Campos gives the proceedings that old-weird-America vibe that the Coen brothers often inject with a little dark humor, or regional filmmakers such as Jeff Nichols are capable of turning into something lived-in and real. But by comparison, Campos’ accomplished cast aspire to a pulp grubbiness that has a movie-movie phoniness to it. Though not nearly as disturbing as 2010’s The Killer Inside Me, another addition to the Men Are Shit canon, The Devil All the Time has a similarly smug attitude about how bold it’s being for suggesting that masculinity is linked to violence and madness. It’s the sort of movie I’m sure the actors would say they chose to do because of how “uncompromising” it is.
Complain about a movie like The Devil All the Time — reject its shallow bleakness — and you risk being labeled as someone who can’t handle the harsh truths of life. (There’s something depressingly aggro about that mindset: Are you man enough to handle a movie this unrelentingly gloomy?) In a director’s statement Campos sent to reviewers, he writes, “I’m often asked why I’m drawn to stories about dark characters. In response, I’ve always said that what I’m drawn to is stories about complicated people. And this is one of those stories.”
It’s an important distinction, and I’m usually on filmmakers like Campos’ side. Only by staring into the murky, ugly depths of our nature can we hope to learn something elemental about the mistakes we make and the self-destructive tendencies that perpetually threaten to tear us down.
But I’d argue that the characters in The Devil All the Time aren’t all that complicated. They’re muddled and familiar, hoping to signify something authentic and despairing about bad men. The men in this movie are certainly bad, but they’re not fascinating — they don’t have the power to suck you in with their evilness. It’s a portrait of sin that never tempts me to see myself in its horrific reflection.