Devil’s Peak, 2023.
Directed by Ben Young.
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Hopper Penn, Brian d’Arcy James, Jackie Earle Haley, Robin Wright, Emma Booth, Katelyn Nacon, Harrison Gilbertson, David Kallaway, and Stephen Matthew Smith.
Set in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains, eighteen-year-old Jacob McNeely is torn between appeasing his meth-dealing kingpin father and leaving the mountains forever with the girl he loves.
Fairly early in Devil’s Peak, Billy Bob Thornton’s Appalachian Mountains small-town drug kingpin Charlie McNeely deploys a metaphor for his self-aware lifelong monstrous behavior that the devil has been performing sexual acts (the actual dialogue is far from PG) since he was 12. It’s the kind of unwieldy and ridiculous line that Billy Bob Thornton can nail the delivery on in his sleep. It doesn’t come across as silly, even if the line is funny, but a terrifying threat demonstrating that this character is every bit as foul and nasty as director Ben Young (using a screenplay by Robert Knott based on David Joy’s novel Where All Light Goes) has set him up to be.
The performance is scarily convincing, enough for the dysfunctional family dynamic to work and overcome familiar storytelling that is likely missing some of the depth the book might possess. It’s audacious to use “devil’s peak” concerning a character, but when Billy Bob Thornton is on screen tormenting everyone in sight, he does come across like the devil… a decidedly white trash riff on Satan.
Charlie has some crooked law enforcement servicemen on his side (a sheriff played by Jackie Earle Haley), an automobile mechanical shop as a front for drug running, a pair of loyal hitmen, a younger and pleasing girlfriend in place of an abused and discarded ex-wife (Robin Wright), and a young adult son named Jacob (Hopper Penn) he has been prepping for the career criminal lifestyle since childhood.
When Devil’s Peak is not fixated on the stranglehold Charlie has on everyone and everything, it takes Jacobs’s perspective, who has an impossible relationship with the daughter (Katelyn Nacon) of one of his father’s enemies (Brian d’Arcy James), a girl that he has genuine feelings for and would like to support going to college with some of his illegal cash. Simultaneously, Charlie’s henchmen have botched a murder (and he reacts how you expect this character would), leaving Jacob taking on a more active role in the life of crime, picking up where they left off and ordered to murder someone who is supposed to be dead, but was only hospitalized.
There is also a moral struggle in Jacob, who visibly wants to have a normal life and spend time with this forbidden girlfriend. Wisely, the filmmakers don’t relegate Billy Bob Thornton to a glorified cameo role like many lower-budget crime thrillers do upon successfully attaching a bigger name to the project. Simply put, Charlie’s menace over this town is not only convincing but necessary as to why Jacob (who is nowhere near as intimidating or temperamental or violently minded as his father) would lack the courage to make some of these no-brainer tough choices.
Charlie consistently says and does horrible things (occasionally to a humorously twisted effect, especially if you’re into watching Billy Bob Thornton do this hotheaded routine), but the character and story remain grounded. Even when the film shifts its third act into an action-oriented territory, there’s a realistic grit with stakes and characters worth caring about.
Hopper Penn carries himself well enough, acting alongside some reliable veteran actors, although the characters here are certainly not complex. As a familiar tale of a powerful family and its illegal drug operation coming apart at the seams, Devil’s Peak succeeds, although it is nowhere near the mountaintop.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com