Mood is everything in director Antonio Campos’ film adaptation of The Devil All the Time. The period drama is set in the backwoods somewhere between Ohio and West Virginia, and it’s this time and place that do a lot of the work in setting up an on-screen tension that has us feeling uneasy from the very first frame. The slow, drawling accents and lingering stares, the run-down houses and bleak state of poverty, the palpable sense that something is amiss… or about to be. For cinematographer Lol Crawley and music directors Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, there’s just so much to work with, making this film both satisfying and somewhat exhausting.
At its centre is Arvin (played by Tom Holland in perhaps his first serious role), a kid whose luck is unenviable. Orphaned, and surrounded by tragedies large and small that seem to pile up around him despite all of his best efforts to protect and to uplift, he’s connected with and to just about every other character we meet in the film – both before he’s even conceived, and long after. It’s a complex web of faces and backstories that, on paper, makes for can’t-put-down reading (Donald Ray Pollock’s 2011 book of the same name was a highly praised bestseller for good reason). But where the construction of the film tends to fall a little into telling rather than showing – the problem with film adaptations of books is often trying to cram such dense storylines and narrative nuance into two hours that it can wind up being a series of vignettes accompanied by a voiceover – the acting is outstanding.
This is a star-studded film, but even though the likes of Robert Pattinson and Tom Holland give stellar performances (and both quite different from their previous roles, particularly given they’re both Brits here adopting rural American accents very well) it’s the lesser-known actors that steal the show. Bill Skarsgard’s turn as a born-again believer is mesmeric, you can’t keep your eyes off Riley Keough’s off-the-rails sidekick to Jason Clarke (even if the whole serial killer double act is spread on a little thick), and Harry Melling’s insane God-fearing Roy Laferty is utterly terrifying. As an ensemble – and across the board, air-time is fairly equal – this combination of actors is a credit to casting director Douglas Aibel, though perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised, given his CV including Ad Astra, The French Dispatch, Glass and Succession.
In all, this tightly wound thriller (would we call it that? It sort of defies genre) delivers. Every frame is beautifully captured, the pacing is fast enough to keep our attention while slow enough to mirror the energy of the small town, and the expert detail of costume and set design has the ability to suspend our disbelief. Even though it would have benefited from the atmosphere-enhancing experience of being shown in a cinema (these, of course, are unprecedented times, and it’s a credit to Netflix’s distribution power), there’s much to enjoy in streaming this film today.