Directed by Ben Young (Extinction, The Wilds), on an adaptation of the 2015 acclaimed novel “Where All Light Tends to Go” by author David Joy, Devil’s Peak is a film that offers the viewer little hope. Mired in an endless cycle of drugs and violence, Young’s latest directorial effort is a slog to get through and offers a bleak interpretation of humanity at its lowest point. However, it’s sixty-seven-year-old Billy Bob Thornton’s menacing and mesmerizing performance that makes it all worth it.
Set in Jackson County, North Carolina, deep in the Appalachian Mountains, Devil’s Peak tells the tale of Jacob McNeely (Hopper Penn), an eighteen-year-old trying to handle his overbearing and meth-dealing father, Charlie (Billy Bob Thornton). Jacob also has his mind set on leaving the drug life behind forever when he falls for Maggie (Katelyn Nacon), a teenager bound for college. Leaving this life won’t be easy, as Charlie is making plans to pass down the family business to his son. Jacob also has other problems to deal with, including trying to break through to his junkie mother, Virgle (Robin Wright), and coming up with enough cash to leave Jackson County forever and start a new life with Maggie.
None of this is going to be easy as Charlie wields a measurable amount of power and influence over those in his orbit. He’s got his hooks into the local Sheriff, Dwight (Jackie Earle Haley), as well as a pair of murderous hitmen that are willing to do anything that needs to be done. Jacob also has to contend with his girlfriend’s stepfather (Brian d’Arcy James), a local politician trying to take down Charlie’s drug ring. This adds a forbidden element to the love story that is growing between Jacob and Maggie.
The proverbial wrench that is thrown into Devil’s Peak is a murder gone bad that Charlie ordered his thugs to carry out. Botching the murder, the victim/witness is left alive and now hospitalized. Charlie is depending on his trusted son to finish the job that his henchmen screwed up. The only problem is that Jacob is clearly not a killer, and desperately needs to steal the cash that is locked away in his father’s safe so he can finally leave the Jackson County drug life behind, starting a new and better life with Maggie, the girl that he loves.
Devil’s Peak is not an easy film to sit through. Its characters are violent, drug-addled, and lead guilt-ridden and tortured lives. This is all the more reason that a solid script and dominating performances drive the film forward, keeping the viewer interested. Unfortunately, Devil’s Peak underdelivers in both areas. Hopper Penn, the prodigal son of Sean Penn and Robin Wright (his mother in the film), turns in an underdeveloped performance. Additionally, he lacks the edge needed when trading scenes with an intense powerhouse like Billy Bob Thornton. Robert Knott’s poorly-written characterizations also don’t do Penn any favors.
Robin Wright, in the few scenes that she appears in, however, turns in a fantastic and heart-wrenchingly brutal performance. The back and forth between her and Penn are also his finest moments in Devil’s Peak. It’s an interesting coincidence that Penn, much like Jacob, has the burden of having to fill some pretty big shoes in living up to Oscar-winner and Hollywood legend, Sean Penn. If only this story of family loyalty and betrayal had richer and more interesting characters telling its story.
Jackie Earle Haley turns in another solid performance as a corrupt cop who shows genuine concern for Jacob. He’s one of the few side characters in this film that shows any real depth or pathos. Katelyn Nacon’s Maggie is underwritten and uninteresting, as is her stepfather in the film. Brian d’Arcy James is a fantastic actor and this subplot of trying to take down a kingpin could have made Devil’s Peak more interesting. Unfortunately, it goes nowhere.
Throughout all the cliched performances and stereotypical shootouts in Devil’s Peak, however, is Billy Bob Thornton. He essentially puts this film on his shoulders. It seems to be intentional for Thornton to have a jet-black dyed goatee and matching eyebrows as his performance in the film is borderline satanic. He verbally (and physically) brutalizes all those who dare cross him or deny his wishes. Thornton is dialing it up to eleven in the film and clearly enjoying himself. The veteran actor fires off evil grins and witty and acidic one-liners almost non-stop. These injections of energy and enjoyment are what this film needs, and it keeps it from completely falling apart.
There’s a good film buried somewhere within the bad lighting and razor-thin screenplay that is Devil’s Peak. Billy Bob Thornton’s loud and over-the-top performance almost allows that good film to break through. Almost. The problem is that Ben Young’s feature is so formulaic and so underwritten that it’s impossible to really care about any of the characters or what happens to them. Perhaps if the writers had stayed more faithful to David Joy’s original Edgar-Award-nominated novel, the results would have gone differently. The incredible cast that is assembled for this film certainly deserved better.
Devil’s Peak, a Screen Media release of a Curmudgeon Films, Thruline Entertainment production, in association with Bankside Films, Streamline Global, the Robert Knott Co., and See Pictures is now playing in theaters.
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