The Devil All the Time is a violent, joyless Coen Brothers homage
Netflix's star-studded new movie is a powerful look at generational cycles of violence. Just don't expect to have a good time while watching it.
In 2018, Ethan and Joel Coen teamed up with Netflix to bring us The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an endlessly inventive original film that turned out to be more like an anthology series squeezed into its movie-length runtime. Buster Scruggs was a hit, but it wasn't technically a Coen Brothers movie. Two years later, Netflix has that movie in The Devil All the Time. But without Joel and Ethan to direct it, this 20th-century saga feels like a joyless cover of your favorite Coen Brothers Western.
Directed with care and enthusiasm by Antonio Campos and based on the 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time follows multiple characters and threads as they weave through the American Midwest, spanning a stretch of history from World War II to the Vietnam War while exploring how violence and religion guide the lives of Americans across multiple generations and families.
The movie's multi-character story, its Americana-soaked backdrop, and its understated, visceral violence will all draw comparisons to the Coen Brothers. No Country for Old Men and Fargo come to mind, but Campos tells Inverse the closest connection he sees is the Coens' 1990 gangster noir set during prohibition.
"The film my brother and I talked about the most was Miller's Crossing," Campos says, "because of the complexity of the plot, because of the period quality, the crime aspect of it, the sense that there are things that play outside of the frame, outside of even these characters."
But unlike the Coen Brothers movies, which rely on a mix of comedy and tragedy in equal parts, The Devil All the Time is 100 percent tragic all of the time. The story begins with Bill Skarsgård, an American soldier who witnesses another man skinned alive and tied up to a cross in the middle of a WWII battlefield. This traumatizing image is the first thing we see, and the movie rarely lets go from there. An insane preacher pours spiders on his face mid-sermon ("40 real spiders!" Campos says), while another evil preacher played by Robert Pattinson preys on the weak. A psychopathic married couple travels the region picking up hitchhikers, only to kill them so the husband can arrange photos of his naked wife lounging next to fresh corpses.
At the center of this horror is Tom Holland, who plays Bill Skarsgård's son, inheriting all the trauma of his father. Holland's character, Arvin, floats through the story dishing out violence and vengeance against a world that only does him wrong. Holland (best known for trading quips with the Avengers while dressed in a skintight Spidey suit) plays the role with a sort of steely resolve that rarely lets through any emotion. You'll believe every gruesome action he takes and understand why he takes them, but you'll never empathize with his character.
It's surprising that Holland, who seems most at home mixing his punches with jokes, never gets a chance to draw any laughs in his first major non-Marvel film. Whether that was Campos sticking to the source material or Holland playing against type is unclear, but The Devil All the Time's lack of comic relief is all the more painful when we know how comedic its star can be.
If the Coen Brothers were the ones directing, there likely would have been some comedy to balance out all the sadness and violence. Instead, we get a riff on a few classics that fails to add anything new to the conversation or even match the movies that inspired it. And while there's nothing inherently wrong with The Devil All the Time, at over two hours long, you may struggle to make it through this entire story.
Just do yourself a favor and be sure to watch that spider scene before you flip over to something more interesting on Netflix. Don't worry, it happens early in the movie.
The Devil All the Time will be streaming on Netflix starting on September 16.