Synopsis: After the disappearance of her husband, a struggling farmer in an isolated Appalachian community fights to save her son when the cold-hearted matriarch of the oldest family on the mountain demands payment of a debt that could destroy a decade’s old truce.
Stars: Danielle Deadwyler, Catherine Dyer, Jayson Warner Smith, Brad Carter, Luce Rains, Adam Boyer, Charles Black, Parisa Johnston, Tim Habeger, Ezra Haslam
Director: Ruckus Skye & Lane Skye
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: When you watch a lot of movies like I do, it sometimes becomes a problem when films start to blend together and you forget what you’ve seen. I often will look back through my list of movies I’ve watched over a year and draw a complete bank just going off the title alone but reading the description is what finally jogs the memory. It’s not that the movies themselves aren’t special or stand-outs on their own merits, it’s only that from week to week there will always be another new one to screen and review before moving on. The thrill of it all is not gone, don’t worry, but I’ve been recognizing that more and trying to make sure I’m actually seeing a movie…not just watching it.
I say this to illustrate that when a movie comes along that sticks in my brain and stays there for weeks after I’ve seen it, that’s how I know it’s something just a tad more unique than the others. The Devil to Pay is one of those films that has planted its flag and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. This small, micro-budgeted gem is a throwback to those taut ‘70s thrillers popular at drive-ins or midnight features that pitted working-class people against similar simple folk that just happened to be up a few more rungs in the ladder of life. With its mysterious Appalachian mountain society that isn’t often on display, writer/directors Lane Skye & Ruckus Skye make excellent use of our unfamiliarity with this setting to keep us on our toes, throwing in surprises aplenty in a concise package.
For those that live in the Appalachian hills, there is a code that must be followed and a truce between two rival families that has stretched on for years. Anyone that lives past a sign that divides the town governed by local police from the homegrown law and order of the hills knows they have to keep in line or pay dearly. Lemon Cassidy (Danielle Deadwyler) knows the way to stay out of trouble and has made a life for herself with her husband Tarlee and son, Coy. Tarlee has vanished, though, gone on another one of his benders…or so she thinks. Left to tend their small farm, Lemon has continued on with the hope that her husband will eventually return but the longer he’s gone the more worried she has become.
A knock on her door in the early morning is a summons from the icy matriarch (Catherine Dyer, What to Expect When You’re Expecting) of one of the families involved in the truce who also oversees the property Lemon and her family live on. Seems that Tarlee was sent on a mission as a way to repay a debt and hasn’t returned and she wants to know if Lemon has heard from him…now it’s up to Lemon to find her husband or finish the job herself. Which puts Lemon in a no-win situation. Deliver her spouse and he’ll certainly be killed for running afoul of the unforgiving clan. Failure to deliver on her own and it means she’ll be killed alongside her son. With no one on the mountain to turn to for fear of retaliation themselves, Lemon becomes a one-woman search-and-rescue….and eventually survival when she crosses a line from which there is no going back.
Earlier this summer, both Skyes were credited writers on the popular Home Alone-ish horror film Becky, a film I found putrid and disgusting. The violence in that one was delivered with simple bloodlust and without any redemptive value, mostly because it was against children and animals. Though they provided the screenplay and weren’t ultimately responsible for the visuals in that film, just knowing The Devil to Pay was from some of the same team involved with that mess had me worried we’d be in for more stomach-turning nonsense but this is a charged, suspenseful winner. Clearly, directing their own material shows they have a more restrained way of portraying violence onscreen that achieves the same results. While it does slip into some cuckoo-bird territory when Lemon encounters a tribe of cultists encamped nearby, it’s slips by easily with points for originality. The violence is not as extreme but it is memorable and delivered without much remorse. This is a brutal environment and the actions taken by the people that live there reflects the place they come from.
The news here, the big big news , is Deadwyler’s star making turn in the lead role. Yes, I said star making even though this is such a small movie I’m not sure enough people will see it to garner that kind of attention…but it’s such a damn fine performance, really note-perfect in every way, that it should get her piles of accolades. The Skyes even afford her a rather long monologue right at the beginning of the film, something that could threaten to slow down any momentum that’s been building…but Deadwyler is so captivating that you’re totally taken with everything she’s saying. She’s well paired with Dyer’s frightening dragon lady who uses words like “ignoramus” and bakes pastries while she talks about murdering Lemon’s child. It’s slips ever so slightly into more KKK Grand Wizard than Big Boss Lady at times (anytime you have a white character saying awful things to a black one though a gigantic white-toothed smile it’s hard to get around that) but Dyer doesn’t let it get too far out of her grip.
Rough around the edges though it may be, it’s smooth sailing nearly the entire way. From it’s ominous opening crawl to the way it manages to continue to surprise us even after an hour of unpredictable turns, The Devil to Pay is that rare blend of originality with true grit. Even if the film were half as good as it is, it would still be worth it to see what will surely be the true starting point Deadwyler’s ascent – as of this writing she’s already been cast in The Harder They Fall for Netflix. This is one of the strongest films I’ve seen in 2020 and very much worth your effort to search it out.