Now Playing: The Devil to Pay (2020) - Reviewed

 The customs and rituals of outlaw societies are often antiquated and complex, binding communities together with blood oaths and generations of vendetta.  Ruckus and Lane Skye's feature debut, The Devil to Pay is a brutally violent exploration of these themes, steeped in Appalachian noir.  Featuring one of the best central performances of the year, pristine visuals, and an unapologetic ambiance, this is a must-see experience.  

Farmer Lemon Cassidy is struggling to care for her son in the wake of her husband's mysterious disappearance. After being tasked with a dangerous endeavor by the ruthless matriarch of an Appalachian dynasty, Lemon is forced to confront the awful truths of life on the mountain. The Skyes cowrote the script which is packed with dangerous nuance and a level of lived in detail that would make Daniel Woodrell (Winter's Bone) smile with pride.  Comparison's to his works are unavoidable, however, where Bone is a study of the Ozark culture in the context of a coming of age tale, Devil is an unrelenting meditation on motherhood and the illusion of customs within isolated communities.

Danielle Deadwyler (Watchmen) gives the performance of a lifetime as Lemon.  She is absolutely captivating in every scene, displaying rage, utter fear, love, compassion, and bravery in an emotional vortex that envelops the film from start to finish.  Her candor in the quiet moments, her adherence to the "creed" of the mountains, and her absolute refusal to surrender creates a palpable sense of dread that is inescapable.  Not only is her Lemon someone you are rooting for, she also someone you're terrified won't make it out alive and this is what makes Devil such a landmark debut.  She's supported by a remarkable ensemble of character actors; each of which portrays one of the many rogues that Lemon meets upon her hellish sojourn through the leaves.  Killers, moonshiners, and profane apostles await Lemon at every turn.  However, it is Catherine Dyer as the villainous Tommy Runion who absolutely commands attention.  If Deadwyler is to be the best actress, Dyer is should be honored as supporting.  Her scenes with Deadwyler are visceral, filled with horror and a reptilian sense of propriety, masked by southern hospitality, a performance that will instill Tommy as one of the best villains to ever grace the screen.  

Brad Carter's banjo-fused score is the arterial matter that winds through lonely country roads and shockingly beautiful mountainsides, that are framed by Sherman Johnson's angelic cinematography.  It would have been easy to present Lemon's world as a dirty, used up collection of broken homes and refuse, however, Johnson frames each location with a sense of soul, domiciles that exist with the pride of their owners, linked by fabled traditions and counterfeit truces of peace and goodwill.  As music plays a role both within and without the visual and aural elements blend into one another to create a prison of beauty in which the principals are hopelessly trapped, both by the expectations of their elders and by oppressive poverty.   

One of the best elements is the Skye's choice to forgo any sense of exposition and allow the rules of the game to be revealed when they matter.  The viewer has no knowledge of the creed, but over the running time, they will become uncomfortably accustomed.  While there are several scenes of shocking violence, the bulk of the threats are implied in a Mamet-esque mashup of country parables and half-truths. 

The end result is one of the best viewing experiences of the year.   The Devil to Pay is a lean 86 minutes that wastes absolutely no time.  From the jump, you are walking alongside a mother whose choices will forever decide her family's fate and the journey is a cinematic wonder that not only spins a surprising noir tale, it manages to dissect a place lost in time and exposes it as something closer to our realities than we may want to admit. 

--Kyle Jonathan