If there’s at least one other thing to take away from enjoying the most recent Jonathan Millott/Cary Murnion thriller, Becky, its the prospect of seeing how its writers, Ruckus Lane and Skye Lane, bode in the director’s chair.
The former has already done numerous shorts and television projects at the helm. Thus, he joins the latter this time around, landing their directorial debut debut with The Devil To Pay, set within the rural, leafy hills and roads of the Appalachians.
For Lemon Cassidy (Danielle Deadwyler), life in the Appalachians with her son, Coy (Ezra Haslam) has long meant sharing a mutual, generational creed with her community, living life by a certain code that keeps residents honest, and peace maintained for more than two centuries.
It’s been months since Lemon has seen her husband Tarlee (Donnie Johnson), while raising their son in the comfort and peace of their small home. Before she knows it, Lemon is summoned by two members of the Runion family, whose matriarch, Tommy Runion (Catherine Dyer), makes her money by leasing generators to residents.
With Coy reluctantly left in their care, Lemon arrives to the Runion homefront, Tommy, in the midst of one of her maniacal baking spells in the kitchen. She alerts Lemon of a task she recently assigned to Tarlee, and for that, a diar ultimatum to either bring back what she claims is hers, or face having her son killed before her eyes.
Lemon’s desperate, nighmarish trek eventually sees her back on the road only to stumbleupon a grisly finding in the form of the Knox family heirloom: an old grandfather clock Tommy claims is hers. With Tarlee’s fate presumably sealed, Lemon uncovers a mystery that dates back to an old family rivaly long-thought to have been resolved, and a conspiracy full of bad faith actors in a murderous plot that will force her to take matters into her own hands in order to rescue her son.
There’s no escaping the obvious historical affliction in The Devil To Pay, a story clearly set in present day whilst already in a world of its own, largely frozen in time. That the film partly starts off with a quote by a 2020 census worker bodes as plentily ominous in hinting at just how dark things are about to get.
Much of the story’s setting is perfectly suitable for a horror movie, as it takes you on a ride through a bleak, psychological hellscape at times. At one point, Lemon agrees to deliver a vile of vitriol for neighboring bartender, Grady (Charles Black), in order to borrow his car, and upon delivery. What remains to be seen is how its used after arriving to the supposed sacred camp ground of a cult, and frankly, it isn’t pretty.
While the artwork for The Devil To Pay may lend the impression of a shotgun-wielding heroine in our protagonist, the character of Lemon is much more brilliant in the writing. Her unassuming, vulnerabile air is matched evenly by her tenacity, quiet cunning and wit.
To add, that she’s a black female living in a region frozen in time is made clear as day without ever employing the words, essentially keeping the audience inherently focused on the story in all its searing intensity as things begin to escalate midway. The film’s adept delivery here also speaks to that of actress Dyer, whose menacing portrayal of Tommy witn her happy homemaking stepford mom veneer, acutely conceals her more sinister, barbaric nature.
As far as the selling point goes, The Devil To Pay handily serves what you pay for as a formidable, often chilling and retributional thriller that will, at times, have you on the edge of your seat. The big (and pretty bloody) climax brings things full circle, following an earlier scene between Lemon and Coy in which she teaches him about the importance of hard work, and awareness about life and all its hardship. This gets just a little more vivid by the end, with extra focus on how the rules and conditions of something supposedly solemn as a creed or a social contract can be rigged against you. (If you’ve ever seen “I’m Not Dying With You Tonight” co-author Kimberly Jones’s passionate, philippic viral video rant from earlier this year, this film will probably hit home with you in that respect, whether or not this was intended.)
Moving at a slow burn with an increasing sense of potency until the big twist, the Skyes’ make fine work of The Devil To Pay, a tangible, chilling, brutal and consequential thriller worth every penny.
The Devil To Pay will play at Drive-in theaters beginning October 2, and will release via On Demand and DVD starting October 6 from Uncork’d Entertainment and Dark Star Pictures.