Netflix Original

The Devil All the Time

23/09/20

Netflix

Imagine the vibrant Americana of the Coen Brothers, twisted into a seething vat of venomous corruption and you’ll pretty much have the measure of The Devil All the Time. Directed and co-written by Antonio Campos and based on a novel by Donald Ray Pollock (who serves as our narrator), this is a multi-layered, labyrinthine slow-burner of a film, where a whole string of characters are linked by a series of weird coincidences. In Pollock’s bleak world view, the blame for most of the evil that plagues humanity can be laid squarely at the door of organised religion.

The central character, Arvon Russell (Tom Holland), is one of the few sympathetic human beings in this narrative, and even he is someone given to Old Testament levels of brutality towards anyone who wrongs his much-loved step sister, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen). Arvon’s violent tendencies stem from the treatment he received from his God-fearing Dad, Willard (Bill Skarsgard), who very much believed in the eye-for-an-eye approach and whose treatment of the family pet is particularly hard to stomach. Lassie Come Home, this really isn’t.  

Elsewhere, we encounter the Reverend Preston Teagarden (Robert Pattinson), a sleazy preacher with a predilection for seducing young girls: crooked cop Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan) who’ll do whatever is necessary to further his ambitions, and a particularly vile couple, played by Jason Clarke and Riley Keough, who get their kicks from picking up young male hitchhikers…

On paper, it all sounds rather relentless but, unfolded as it is in a slow, measured narrative, it’s a surprisingly powerful brew. As Arvon is led inexorably deeper and deeper along the path to retribution, I find myself gripped right up to the final credits. It helps that a whole menagerie of talented actors submit nuanced performances here, particularly Holland who proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that there’s a lot more to him than slinging webs.

This may not be to everybody’s taste. As a vision of the United States, there’s little here resembling any kind of hope for the country’s collective soul. Indeed, it is a tale so excoriating, so morally bankrupt, that you can only feel a nagging worry for the society that spawned it. 

The Devil All the Time is a Netflix original, ready to watch whenever you have the time, or the nerve, to take it on.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

El Camino

18/10/19

Billed as ‘a Breaking Bad Movie,’ this Netflix orginal plays more like an extended episode of the much-loved television series, but that’s no bad thing. There are some loose ends that need tying up and writer/director Vince Gilligan gives it his best shot here. The titular vehicle is, of course, the one in which Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) finally makes his escape from the evil Nazi villains who have kept him locked up for so long.

Immediately, there are a few problems. The actors have clearly aged considerably more than the few minutes that are supposed to have elapsed since we last saw the characters. This is particularly evident in the case of Todd (Jesse Plemons), who now has an entirely different physique. However, once this abberation has been taken on board, the film motors along at full throttle, as Jesse sets about trying to engineer his disappearance off the face of the planet.

His first port of call is with old comrades, Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), the latter delivering what is probably the film’s most poignant line. As Jesse struggles to put together enough money to fund his disappearing act, the narrative becomes ever more convoluted, ever more dangerous – and there are regular flashbacks that allow deceased characters to make cameo appearances. Some fare better than others, and its a shame to note that the one we wanted to see more than any other, doesn’t really have an awful lot to add to the story. And fans of Better Call Saul are, I’m afraid, set for disappointment.

Gilligan’s familiar tropes are here: the big skies and sun-blasted landscapes of Alburquerque; the focus on the endearing oddities of the characters; the idiosyncratic dialogue. Despite his changed appearance, it’s Plemons who shines most as the psycopathic Todd, never more interesting than when he’s at the wheel of his car, singing serenely along to a slushy ballad while he transports the body of his latest victim to its last resting place. Sad too, to note the final performance from the recently deceased Robert Forster as the mysterious Ed.

This keeps me engaged right through to its tender and rather touching conclusion but, while it serves as a decent curtain-closer to the series, it doesn’t exactly blow me away. Perhaps too much time has elapsed since I last engaged with Mr Pinkman and co – or maybe those loose ends just don’t offer enough knots to unravel.

3.9 stars

Philip Caveney

To the Bone

19/07/17

Honestly, I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to watch this film, and might not have done had the weather been nicer, had I not already seen all Cineworld had to offer, and had I not imposed upon myself a ‘Dry July’ and thus removed the option of going to the pub. I’d read Hadley Freeman’s scathing review in The Guardian and feared it might be a misogynistic, voyeuristic old mess. But, actually, this Netflix Original well exceeded my expectations, and I think it merits a (cautiously) positive response.

To be clear, I have no personal experience of eating disorders, and am in no way dismissing Freeman’s more informed opinion. Hers is the insider’s view. But, from an outsider’s perspective, this film ain’t bad at all.

It tells the tale of Ellen (or Eli), played with frail intensity by Lily Collins (last seen as Red, an animal rights activist in Okja, looking a lot healthier than she does here). Ellen has suffered from anorexia for years; the film begins with her leaving a treatment centre, and moving in with her half-sister, Kelly (Liana Liberato) and stepmother, Susan (Carrie Preston). It’s clearly an awkward fit: although Ellen and Kelly get on very well, Ellen finds Susan insensitive and unhelpful.  But she has little choice: her father, who ostensibly lives in the same house, is wholly absent from the film, and  her mother, Judy (Lili Taylor), who has recently relocated to Phoenix with her partner, Olive (Brooke Smith), is adamant that she “cannot deal” with Ellen’s problems in her life. In desperation, frightened by Ellen’s plummeting weight and left alone to cope with it, Susan makes a last-ditch attempt to find a solution, and settles on the in-patient therapy offered by unorthodox doctor, William Beckham (Keanu Reeves).

Actually, Dr Beckham doesn’t seem to do much at all. He talks honestly to Ellen without pulling any punches; he tells her that, if she continues as she is, it won’t be long before she dies. Beyond that, it’s hard to see what the actual treatment is. There’s an attempt to make mealtimes less stressful (the in-patients all have to sit at the dinner table, but they’re not compelled to eat), and a calm and caring atmosphere is created in the centre. Ellen makes friends there, most notably the intensely irritating Luke (Alex Sharp), whose know-it-all attitude is sickeningly patronising – although Ellen doesn’t seem to notice, so perhaps that’s just me – but still, it’s not made clear how this place and process help.

But I don’t think the film is really about that: it’s not a treatment manual. It’s more an exploration of the impact and effects of this terrible condition, both on the sufferers and on those around them. Characters that begin as almost comic caricatures (e.g. Susan) are revealed as complex and conflicted, struggling to deal with watching Ellen self-destruct. Judy’s anguish is made clear too, in a later scene, as is Ellen’s fear and her inability to stop.

Freeman condemns the film for glamourising anorexia (“it’s not all thigh gaps and eyeliner”), and there’s no denying that Collins looks beautiful most of the time. But I’m not sure that’s this film’s fault: as scarily skinny as she is in this, Collins looks exactly like a lot of film stars and fashion models; her big-eyed, sharp-jawed face is not alien at all. She’s the epitome of what we’re told is good. And maybe, just maybe, that’s an important point to make.

I don’t think this is a film that purports to have the answers. I think it’s just a story, a tragic tale of one girl’s life. Of course, that doesn’t let it off the hook. But it seems to be a tale well-told, even if there is no universal truth revealed.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield