The Devil to Pay
by Hope Madden
I’ve long felt that pre-film text-on-screen quotes are a cinematic crutch, often pretentious musings that rarely capture the essence of the film about to unspool.
Then, over a colorful vista of misty Appalachian mountaintops and plaintive banjo strings I read about the hardy folk populating those peaks, the descendants of criminals and oppressed alike who sought refuge in this inhospitable place.
As shadow creeps across the landscape, the quote:
“They want nothing from you and God help you if you try to interfere.” – 2010 census worker
Welcome to The Devil to Pay, Lane and Ruckus Skye’s lyrical backwoods epic, grounded in a lived-in world most of us never knew existed.
The tale is anchored with a quietly ferocious turn by Danielle Deadwyler (who also produces) as Lemon, a hardscrabble farmer trying to keep things up and wondering where her husband has been these past days.
Deadwyler’s clear-eyed efficiency is matched with the hillbilly condescension of one Tommy Runion (Catherine Dyer, flawless), whose homespun advice and cheer mask a dead-eyed, sadistic sense of right, wrong and entitlement.
One of the most tightly written thrillers in recent memory, The Devil to Pay peoples those hills with true characters, not a forgettable villain or cliched rube among them. The sense of danger is palpable and Deadwyler’s commitment to communicating Lemon’s low key tenacity is a thing of beauty.
Hell, the whole film is beautiful, Sherman Johnson’s camera catching not just the forbidding nature of Appalachia, but also its lush glory.
Yes, the cult that lives just outside the county line does feel a tad convenient, but again, the Skyes and their outstanding cast carve out memorable, realistic and terrifying characters.
The Devil to Pay remains true to these fascinating souls, reveling in the well-worn but idiosyncratic nature of their individual relationships—a tone matched by sly performances across the board. And just when you think you’ve settled into a scene or a relationship, The Devil to Pay shocks you with a turn of events that is equal parts surprising and inevitable.
It’s a stunning film, and a rare gem that treats Appalachians not as clichés, but certainly not as people to be messed with.