REVIEW: “Devil’s Peak” (2023)

Based on the novel “Where All Light Tends to Go” by David Joy, “Devil’s Peak” is a modest crime thriller set in poverty-stricken, drug-infested rural Appalachia. It’s not the first movie to examine this troubled yet compelling region in the Eastern United States, but director Ben Young and screenwriter Robert Knott have some interesting pieces to work with. Unfortunately the material is plagued with overly simple story beats, thinly sketched characters, and an inescapable air of familiarity.

The story takes place in Jackson County, North Carolina and the roles are filled by a solid ensemble. Hopper Penn plays Jacob McNeely, the son of a hardcore drug dealer named Charlie (Billy Bob Thornton) who has had the impoverished local community by the throat for years. Jacob runs an auto body shop which is really a front for the father’s drug ring. We learn Charlie has had his son selling crystal meth since he was nine-years-old. It’s the family business.

But Jacob has a decency inside that sets him apart from his father. It comes out in his affection for his troubled mother and Charlie’s ex-wife Virgie (Robin Wright). We also see it in his love for his girlfriend Maggie (Katelyn Nacon) who is about to go to college in Wilmington. She’s the daughter of a crooked politician (Brian d’Arcy James) who’s not too keen on his daughter’s choice of a boyfriend. Jackie Earle Haley chips in as the local sheriff named Dwight while Emma Booth plays Charlie’s live-in girlfriend Josephine.

Much of “Devil’s Peak” focuses on the dysfunctional family tension between Jacob, Charlie, and Virgie. To no surprise Thornton, with his shaved head and bushy jet-black goatee, has no trouble playing a vile and irredeemable menace. It’s an effective performance that’s a little cartoonish but fittingly repellent. Wright brings more nuance, playing a junkie trying to overcome the mistakes of her past. Sadly Wright is dealt a bad hand and isn’t given much to work with. Penn isn’t quite as convincing. As Jacob struggles to get out from under his family name, Penn struggles to earn our empathy. His somewhat muted performance isn’t able to muster the excitement or emotion that the character and the movie needs.

“Devil’s Peak” could have taken its characters in a number of interesting directions. Instead it plays it safe, telling a story that follows its one trajectory to the very end. And despite the commitment of the cast, even the characters crumble under the weight of formula. To its credit, Young’s pacing ensures it’s never boring. But with so little under its Southern Gothic exterior, it’s hard to find much to get excited about. “Devil’s Peak” is now available on VOD.


10 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Devil’s Peak” (2023)

  1. I’m cracking up at that photo of Billy Bob Thornton. I’m sorry, but it’s just one of those images that likely doesn’t at all capture the nightmare that is his character, but that bald cap (unless he actually did shave) is tickling me

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