Netflix’s ‘The Devil All the Time’ presents dark, twisted character study

Noah Levine

Editor’s note: This review discusses religious and gruesome imagery as well as suicide. If you or somebody you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.

A star-studded cast comes together for “The Devil All the Time,” one of the darkest films of the year. 

The new Netflix film is a twisted thriller based on the novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock. It follows a group of bizarre and sinister characters through rural Ohio after the end of World War II. Tom Holland’s Arvin Russell is at the core of the narrative as he faces off against a mysterious preacher and the burdens of his childhood. Antonio Campos directs an effective character study that thrives in its morbidity and loose narrative. 

Warning: Spoilers ahead.  

The bleak journey begins with Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) returning from World War II. Haunted by a terrifying memory involving a crucifixion, Skarsgård’s Willard is very much opposed to religion and faith. But when his wife Charlotte is diagnosed with cancer, Willard believes he has no choice but to rely on the power of God to save her. His paranoia is soon directed at his young son Arvin as Willard forces him to pray for his mother. 

After sacrificing their family dog in a desperate attempt to save Charlotte, she passes away. Willard is later found dead at the foot of a cross in a tragic end to his life and relationship with religion. Arvin is left an orphan, plagued by his family tragedy.

The motif of blind faith consumes every narrative thread of this film and results in tragedy in each character’s life. There are moments of gruesome imagery throughout, creating a stark contrast with the seemingly peaceful backdrop of the Ohio landscape. 

The sinister doings of the film’s supporting characters revolve around teenage Arvin. Years after his father’s suicide, he lives with his grandmother, uncle and teenage stepsister Lenora (Eliza Scanlen). Arvin is very protective of Lenora, who was also orphaned by faith-related acts of violence. Their relationship is one of the only signs of hope throughout the bleak narrative. 

When she goes to the new preacher (Robert Pattinson) for guidance, their relationship takes a twisted turn. The corrupt church leader takes advantage of young Lenora, resulting in her accidental death and a furious Arvin. Seeking revenge, Arvin physically confronts the embodiment of the blind faith that has caused the death of his loved ones.

With so many complex storylines, the film struggles to stay focused on Arvin Russell’s battle with his own perception of religion. The narrative of the sheriff who faces small-town corruption, for example, feels unnecessary. While these threads do affect the main story in the end, they are teased for far too long and distract from the focus on Arvin’s journey. 

“The Devil All the Time” is an extremely dark film. It strives to display the misguided and sinister tasks carried out by vulnerable people at the tail end of the second World War. As the harrowing storylines slowly converge in an intensive finale with Arvin, his beliefs and outlook on morality are challenged. 

4 Tom Holland Yawns out of 5