A star-studded cast undermines the tragedy of ‘The Devil All The Time’

"The Devil All The Time" poster. Courtesy of Netflix.

By Anoushka Dalmia
BU News Service

“The Devil All The Time” is a uniquely American film by director Antonio Campos, weaving tragedy with normalcy to portray the anguish in daily life. Hyped relentlessly for its star cast, the mid-September release was the most-watched film on Netflix for two days. But the promotional value of the cast is the story’s undoing. This, combined with a runtime of 138 minutes, leaves its viewers unmoved and frustrated.

In post-World War II America, Marine Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) returns from war to build a small life in Knockemstiff, Ohio. Adversity follows him home and the death of his wife wrecks his newfound peace. His son Arvin (Tom Holland), who Willard abandons in grief, settles into a new life with his grandmother in Coal Creek, West Virginia. But the arrival of a preacher (Robert Pattinson) throws this fresh start into chaos too as he struggles to tie the knots of fate linking him to both these towns, eventually leading him back to Sheriff Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan).

The dry script yields surprisingly enjoyable performances. Holland is powerful as a conflicted young man prone to rage, well in control of his expression. Pattinson’s natural disposition fits well with his perverse preacher, and his self-taught pitchy Southern accent is delightful, if not entirely convincing. Skarsgård is the perfect choice for a pained yet gentle veteran. And Stan manages to elicit emotion even for his crooked, wretched cop.

Despite their proficiency, the casting is the root cause of the film’s failure. Stories about specks of the extraordinary dotting ordinary lives are tricky. Viewers must see themselves in a film’s characters, even if their lives are nothing like those of the characters they’re watching. The decision to cast multiple actors of incredible fame extracts the mundanity meant to underscore this tragedy. It cuts through the unremarkable but gratifying plot and stands as a separate entity, pulling the viewer out of the experience almost entirely.

Star casts aren’t always a problem. Take, for example, “The Favourite,” a 2018 Yorgos Lanthimos masterpiece. Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone make a distinguished trio. The star cast works because their characters aren’t meant to be pedestrian. It’s a story about grandeur and ego, so the actors’ fame only amplifies its majestic characters.

But in a tale of two remote towns and its sordid inhabitants, unfamiliarity is essential. Stan’s cop is a seemingly trivial character, introduced 30 minutes into the film. His return 40 minutes later would ideally be unexpected, but we already know he’ll be back– an actor with his popularity doesn’t appear in a movie for only two minutes.

Campos wants to evoke the sense that anyone could share these characters’ struggles because their pain is heartbreakingly prosaic. But the lackluster dialogue fails to immerse the audience, the prominent cast doesn’t blend in, and the illusion is broken. The viewer is left snickering at the exaggerated accents rather than pondering the inevitability of grief. Everybody ends up with the critic’s curse.

It’d be ludicrous to suggest that filmmakers not use famous actors. However, the impact of fame cannot be ignored. Artists on both sides of the camera must come to a reckoning with its modern effect. Maybe then it could be used to elevate the craft, not just to sell tickets.

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