It’s not hard to imagine the scorchingly hot cast of Netflix’s The Devil All The Time attracting, then traumatising, an unsuspecting young audience. Part-time superheroes Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, and Sebastian Stan lead a stacked ensemble that also includes Bill Skarsgård, Eliza Scanlen, Riley Keough, Mia Wasikowska, and Harry Melling.
But director Antonio Campos’ (Afterschool, Simon Killer) adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s novel couldn’t be further removed from breezy, mainstream comic-book fare. A sprawling Southern Gothic drama set in post-war Ohio, around the epicentre of a town called Knockemstiff, TDATT’s time-hopping story begins with Willard Russell (Skarsgård) returning from WW2, and starting a family with Charlotte (Haley Bennett).
Their son, Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta, and later Holland) is the throughline of the story, which weaves a relentlessly sombre web of serial killers, perverted preachers, crooked sheriffs, religious fanatics and other assorted reprobates.
Campos (who co-writes with his brother Paulo) conjures up a thick, dread-soaked atmosphere with cinematographer Lol Crawley’s undersaturated images. And there’s no doubting the commitment of the cast. Holland evidences that he’s more than a fresh-faced idol, and Pattinson delivers another striking, film-stealing supporting turn with a hear-it-to-believe-it high-pitched Southern twang. You get the impression that the most of the cast are relishing the chance to add a bit of scuff to their CVs.
But despite an arresting tone, and several memorable individual scenes, the film struggles somewhat to engage on a character level. Holland’s Arvin is the closest thing we have to a protagonist to root for, but it’s hard to ever feel truly invested when events start so gloomily – with the horror of war, terminal illness and dog sacrifice – and just get darker from there, the intensity verging on cartoonish in places.
Perhaps Campos is too closely wedded to Pollock’s book (the author even provides the voiceover) to allow it to entirely adjust to a new medium. But for such a harrowing experience, it’s a pity that the emotional payoff is rather muted.
The Devil All the Time is on Netflix from September 18