Lemon Cassidy lives with her partner and son on a tiny farm in Appalachia. When her husband vanishes under shady circumstances, she becomes drawn into a ruthless game of penance and retribution. Labelled as expendable, with her son held as collateral, she must fight with all her considerable cunning, to turn victimisation into vengeance.
Director/writers Lane & Ruckus Skye, have crafted one of the most confident feature debuts in recent feminist cinema memory. Only Coralie Fargeat’s visceral Revenge, Julia Ducournau’s repugnant Raw and Abner Pastoll’s unflinching A Good Woman Is Hard to Find, can hold a candle to its vivid flame in terms of an agenda-setting opening salvo.
There are two key portions of dialogue that encapsulates the composed deportment of The Devil To Pay and its startling ability to find simplicity in the overtly complex. One is an extended recounting of an eyeball gobbling fable and the second, is a contender for the most perfunctorily cold-hearted threat in movie history. These moments illustrate perfectly just how eloquent this smart indie picture is in the language of cinema. This elegant economy, in how it sets up its narrative of heartless entitlement versus stoical intransigence, is typical of the films graceful mechanics.
The cinematography excels in intimate composition, expansive scene-setting and intense action, with the fabulously organic soundtrack undulating in symbiosis. Character decisions are grounded and authentic and the codes of conduct that engender them enigmatic in their antiquity. All these elements gel to construct a cogent sandbox for the machiavellian menace to flourish in.
Establishing such a richly textured backdrop allows the filmmakers to ramp up the tension and spring plot traps with ease. It even allows for the luxury of left field excursions into head fuck territory. Witness the weird woodland cult who base their belief system on acid. No, not the hackneyed mind-altering acid, but the corrosive kind!
The rugged spine of The Devil To Pay is Lemon’s path to a stark realisation, that she must mirror the abhorrent behaviour of her oppressors if she and her son are to prevail. Crucial to this, Danielle Deadwyler is nothing short of astonishing in the role. She unleashes a performance of such self-disciplined ferocity, it is impossible to do anything but root for her. The flawless timing, abraded emotion and dignified defiance at the core of this characterisation are purified empathy fuel.
There is no doubt that The Devil To Pay has a near limitless arsenal of cinematic ammunition at its disposal. However, it’s the sheer velocity and direction in which it fires it that makes for one of the most important and engrossing movies of the year.
The Appalachian region has long been a potent source of myth and legend, particularly the intensity and prevalence of endemic feuding. Mercilessly stereotyped and misrepresented through blatant yellow journalism, its 25 million-plus inhabitants have been painted as uneducated, inbred powder kegs for generations. However, the actuality of the matter was quite different. These bitter altercations were not by-products of philistinism, beggary and seclusion, but, the trickle-down fallout from the political power struggles of the local elite.
One of the many achievements of this remarkable film is to go some way to setting the record straight and redressing the balance.
Despite its divergence and a relatively small budget, The Devil To Pay is a riveting and classy thrill ride, that has all the potential to blow up completely and become a genre classic.
Survival thriller, Comunity politics | USA, 2019 | 87mins. | 2nd October / 6th October 2020 (USA) | Select Drive-Ins /On Demand| Darkstar Pictures | Dir.Lane & Ruckus Skye| Cast. Danielle Deadwyler, Charles Black, Adam Boyer, Brad Carter