Review: ‘Devil’s Peak’

Robin Wright, Hopper Penn, And Billy Bob Thornton Lead A Thorny But Forgettable Crime Drama

by guest writer Tricia Olszewski

Jacob McNeely, the protagonist of Devil’s Peak, is having an existential crisis. It’s probably been going on for a while: He’s the son of a crime lord, a meth dealer who has the run of their small North Carolina town. He works in the auto repair shop that launders Dad’s money alongside two lackeys who do his dirty work. His mother isn’t in the business, but she’s not exactly a source of love or comfort, instead the kind of mom who asks her son if he has any weed. Jacob’s only bright spot is Maggie, his girlfriend, though Maggie’s father doesn’t want him near his daughter. Still, the young couple talk about a future together somewhere else, somewhere where Maggie can go to college and Jacob can peacefully live on the right side of the law.

The situations in Devil’s Peak are thorny, but the movie itself is quite simplistic. Directed by Ben Young from Robert Knott’s script, which Knott adapted from the book Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy, the film has more atmosphere than plot, the type where smoking stands in for characterization and intense stares are substituted for dialogue. Jacob himself (Hopper Penn, son of Sean Penn and Robin Wright) is the picture of hangdog, a permanently distraught look on his face regardless of whether he’s interacting with his father, Charlie (Billy Bob Thornton), his mother (Wright), or Maggie (Katelyn Nacon).

Among the story’s few happenings is a possible informant who’s beaten but not quite to death, the result of that incomplete job, Maggie’s father’s (Brian d’Arcy James) one-scene attempt to shake down Charlie, and Jacob’s request that Dad give him the money he’s been keeping for him from his cut of the meth trade, which Jacob got “like most kids get allowance.” It sounds more exciting than it is, its failure to register countered only by Thornton’s performance, which borders on cartoonishly evil; whenever his Charlie gives a speech—and that happens a lot—you expect him to start twirling his mustache. But at least he makes an impression, unlike Jackie Earle Haley, who plays a cop who’s in Charlie’s pocket but doesn’t register as particularly bad.

The beats of Devil’s Peak are predictable and largely dull, at least until the end of the third act, which turns genuinely heart-pounding as Jacob stands up for himself and finds out what Charlie had in mind when, after Jacob asks for his money, he says that he’ll get what’s coming to him. Besides a few shots that Young intentionally blurs before bringing them into focus, his direction is straightforward and unremarkable, its lack of style matching the lack of excitement. The dialogue likewise isn’t anything that will catch your attention except for the odd description, such as Charlie saying that Maggie’s father thinks he’s the “Jesus J. Edgar Hoover Christ of the Appalachian Mountains,” or when he claims, somewhat quizzically, that “the devil’s been sucking my dick since I was 12.” One of the script’s favorite lines is “It is what it is,” which is trotted out three times when various characters are talking about the vagaries of the backwater muck they find themselves stuck in.

The film’s final half-hour, however, is nearly electrifying enough to erase your memory of the boredom that it offered before it. But then it turns illogical and unrealistic, too much so for you to adequately suspend disbelief and enjoy the action. It’s another disappointment in what could have been a high-caliber thriller if based on nothing else but its cast, and you’ll forget it all as soon as the credits roll. But it is what it is.

Devil’s Peak is in theaters now, VOD beginning February 24th.