White male rage, white male rage, white male rage!
When I saw the trailer for The Devil All the Time, I didn’t connect with the story at all. With the current political climate, I had no interest in watching a film about a white family in 1965 living in small rural white towns. I quickly apologized to my love, Tom Holland, then moved on to watch other movie trailers. However, a few days later, I watched the trailer again and discovered an opportunity! I could finally analyze toxic masculinity – something I haven’t done since my Gender and Film class in college. With that in mind, I was prepared to watch my Spidy-boy take on our new gothic Batman, Robert Pattinson.
ANOTHER DISCLAIMER: This review will have spoilers!
Quick Side Note.
Every single actor and actress was brilliant. From using Holland’s boyish charm to sympathize with his character to using Pattinson’s creepy charm to feel suspicious of him, the casting director knew exactly who to hire. However, the constant use of a narrator to describe everyone’s emotions was like watching a boring audiobook. The narration also took away from the brilliant performances. For example, when Lenora (Eliza Scalen) is about to take commit suicide because the priest knocked her up out of wedlock, a thought comes across her mind. Her expression tells the audience that she did not need to take her life simply because the priest bullied her to do so. In fact, she would be a great single mom and love her child no matter what. And, as soon as the audience learns this from Scalen’s performance, the narrator tells us exactly how the character feels; this immediately takes away from Scalen’s gut-wrenching performance.
Another example is when Arvin (Holland) goes back to his childhood home to give his dog, Jack, a proper burial. While burying the bones of Jack, Arvin realizes why his father committed suicide after his mother’s death. Holland’s tearful eyes and a perfectly placed quick flashback let the audience know that Arvin finally understood his father’s actions. However, the narrator stole Holland’s thunder.
Unfortunately, the sole role of women in this story was to justify men’s toxicity. Women were either love interests or victims. Not more, not less. They are simply plot devices. When Lenora realizes that being a pregnant young woman out of wedlock did not make her a sinner, the writers kill her off. When Arvin learns that she died while pregnant, the film turns into his revenge story. His anger comes from the fact that he couldn’t protect her.
Throughout the film, I wondered if Lenora didn’t accidentally kill herself. What would her story be like? Now, I know what you’re going to say: NIKKI, THAT’S HOW IT WAS BACK THEN OR THAT’S THE CULTURE OVER THERE. However, I strongly disagree. This story is fiction. A writer can choose how to portray any character in anytime period without having to stereotype. Characters’ story or personality shouldn’t be determined by their period. Instead, the period should explain any limitation put on them. Here, the writers chose to let women solely be victims or objects for desire. In one scene, a woman is giving a man a hand job but he only comes when he thinks about how awesome he is. She’s just here to help him realize that.
Moreover, the men often put down the women to assert their dominance and remind the audience that the story is about them, the men. The female characters are also always sad for either the men in the movie or the situation that men put them in. There is no sense of autonomy for the female characters. It’s sad and annoying to see a film in 2020 still rely on these tropes to sell a movie. The treatment of women leads to my next point: masculinity.
The Problem with Arvin: The “New” Angry Young Man.
As a public defender, I could easily see and understand Arvin’s criminality. I felt bad for him. However, I could not root for him at the end of the movie. I kept waiting for him to get shot in the head. A part of me wanted to jump into the screen and stop Arvin from doing what he felt was the “right thing to do.” However, it is clear that the director wanted Arvin to be this generation’s “angry young man.” A trope that is used in several films to justify toxic masculinity. After a few moments, I felt that I’ve already seen this movie. It didn’t feel new or original. Just the relaunch of an old trope in the form of Arvin.
Arvin’s childhood explains his actions. His father, Willard, served in the military where he could either try and save a man or kill him to put him out of his misery. He chooses the latter. However, this act haunts throughout the film. Instead of dealing with his PTDS and trauma, he quietly listens to stories about faith and distracts himself with the love of his wife. All of which only repress the negativity – not cure it. Eventually, he teaches his son how to be a man. One day, while praying with Arvin, two hunters make fun of Willard and Arvin. The hunters talk about fucking Willard’s wife while he prays so she has company in bed. Young Arvin stops praying and wants to fight them, but Willard stops him by saying, “not on the Lord’s time.” Later that day, Willard takes Arvin to where those hunters hangout. He tells his son to stay in the truck as Willard beats the living shit out of them. Arvin watches this from the truck, terrified and confused. Before any of this, Arvin was at home singing with his mother, reading a comic, and enjoying his dog’s company. Then, he’s exposed to toxic masculinity disguised as a solution to solve his problems. After watching that act of violence, Arvin considered it the best day he’s ever had with his dad.
When Arvin’s mother gets cancer, his father tells him to pray because only the lord can save her. Arvin prays but begins to cry. His father smacks him on the head and reminds young Arvin to never cry when in-front of the lord. He punished Arvin for expressing any emotions deemed feminine. Later on, Willard murdered Arvin’s dog without caring about the impact it would have on Arvin. The death of his dog symbolizes the death of Arvin’s boyhood and entering into toxic manhood.
Throughout the rest of the film, Arvin holds back tears and beats the living shit out of men bullying Lerona. Eventually, Arvin commits more acts of violence to achieve his “justice.” His criminality becomes complicated and sympathetic but ignores the source. If Arvin had been able to be his kind, noble, and sensitive self then he would not be in many of these horrible situations. He could be a better friend to Lerona instead of invalidity her feelings or seeing as someone he’s meant to protect like an object. This maybe would have prevented Lerona’s loneliness which ultimately leads her to get pregnant by the local priest. However, the toxic masculine qualities force him to suppress those characteristics and be something he’s probably not. Arvin takes his anger out on Lerona by putting her down emotionally so he can look like the strong one in the family.
Not Just Arvin.
All the men in this movie are considered “devils.” They are complicated and horrible to everyone around them. But, the film spends too much time defending them as people instead of analyzing their problems. However, white men in cinema get that luxury. Their anger and rage aren’t seen as a problem so much as solutions to it. Audiences are told it is okay that they’re mad because their anger is justified. White men have intolerable wives and/or abusive dads. Or, they need to maintain their political power so they have to do some bad things to bad people. This narrative has been played out too many times. Nothing in this film is different or fresh. Whereas, Black male rage is seen as dangerous. Their rage stems from racism and discrimination, particularly with the police. This leads the Black community to protest to express centuries of anger. But that anger is dangerous and violent, thus it needs to be stopped with force.
Throughout the film, Arvin gets the luxury of a thorough investigation into his actions rather than a quick to assume deviant who needs to be punished. Even when Arvin kills a police officer, we are told that it was justified because the officer was corrupted. No one would think to say Arvin didn’t act out of self-defense or “All Lives Matter.” Instead, we are told to feel sorry for Arvin and say, “it’s okay, Arvin, you are a good man.” This simply wouldn’t happen for a Black protagonist. Critics would question this film more if the main character was Black doing these actions instead of our favorite white spider-man.
If you want to watch this movie, keep these thoughts in mind. Although the performances are great, I hope this movie isn’t too widely celebrated or awarded. Too often, Hollywood has awarded these films for being great stories but not realizing the impact on our culture or lessons it teaches people. (I am tired of seeing white saviors or complicated white characters win all the awards.)
If the narrator changed his narration, then this film would be seen in a different light. For example, if the narrator had simply said, “although this was the best day of Arvin’s life, it set him up for a troubled future,” instead of declaring that day the best day. Or, when Arvin is about to kill the priest, the narrator said, “Had Arvin been a better brother by listening to his sister instead of putting her down, she may not have killed herself and Arvin wouldn’t be doing this.” These slight changes would have made the film less problematic.
In this film, Arvin being the devil all the time is meant to be seen as heroic. At the end of the movie, Arvin hopes that people will see him as a hero – not the devil.
That’s all for now.