Lane and Ruckus Skye, the writers of Becky (2020), are back with another revenge-fueled tale, The Devil to Pay. In their directorial debut, the husband and wife duo create a world with its own rules, where anyone who breaks “Creed” is punished severely. The film contains mesmerizing cinematography and an affecting score. Though the story is at times a little uneven, the film’s hardscrabble protagonist is well-drawn.
Filmed in Georgia, the movie takes place in the Appalachian Mountains, in a small community that lives and dies by its own rules. They’re governed by what they call the “Creed,” a system of old customs and traditions. Our protagonist, Lemon (Danielle Deadwyler), largely keeps to herself and keeps watch over her boy, Coy (Ezra Haslam). Her world is undone when she learns that her husband was killed fulfilling a debt for a neighbor, the sinister Tommy Runion, played by Catherine Dyer. It’s up to Lemon to complete her husband’s task, or else the Runion clan will kill Lemon and her boy.
The directors do a superb job establishing tension, especially early on when Lemon is summoned to Tommy’s house. Her face is etched with worry, and again, Deadwyler’s performance throughout the film deserves praise. She conveys both resolution and dread through her clear-eyed facial expressions. Dyer, meanwhile, is a ruthless villain on par with the neo-Nazis in Becky. In her kitchen, she clenches Lemon’s hand and threatens to kill her and her son if Lemon refuses to do as she asks. A moment later, when the oven timer dings, she smiles and says, “The biscuits are done.”
The Skye duo have a knack for writing complex villains whose sinister motives and sadistic sense of right hide behind fake smiles and niceties. In that regard, they ensure that these Appalachian characters are not cliché. Lemon specifically is fully realized, and her need to protect her only child makes her a relatable protagonist.
Sherman Johnson’s cinematography is another high point. The shots of misty mountaintops capture both the lush beauty and danger of those deep woods and the people who inhabit them. The whole film is beautiful. This is matched by Brad Carter’s score, which mostly features plaintive banjo notes and sometimes cello and acoustic guitar. It underscores the tone and mood of the film quite well.
If there’s any real flaw to the film, it’s the story. There’s reference at the beginning of the film to communities that have existed since the 18th Century and a quote from a 2010 census worker about how those communities don’t want to be bothered. However, the world we peer into is not given enough weight or depth. It’s just sort of there. Its rules are sometimes muddled and confusing. In a neighboring community, there’s a weird and chilling cult whose chant “back to the ether” has severe ramifications for a member of the Runion clan. But again, the cult exists with no explanation. Yet, they’re one of the most haunting and fascinating aspects of the film that feel underutilized. Heck, I wanted to know how these two different worlds keep peace with each other.
Any gripes about the story are minor. The Devil to Pay has enough epic moments, especially the scenes between Lemon and Tommy and the performances by Deadwyler and Dyer. They steal every scene that they’re in. Deadwyler’s character evolves from a hardworking farmer to a shotgun-wielding mother who will protect her boy at all costs, while unleashing revenge on those responsible for her husband’s death. The film’s performances are bolstered by well-scripted tension, stunning cinematography, and Carter’s fitting musical score that will make you feel lost in these Appalachian communities.
Overall, The Devil to Pay is a solid directorial debut for Lane and Ruckus Skye. They’ve already proven with Becky that they can write a solid revenge story, but they kick it up a notch with The Devil to Pay, a lyrical backwoods tale.
The Devil to Pay comes out on Oct. 2 in drive-in theaters and on-demand and DVD on Oct. 6
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