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Devil's Peak

Ben Young’s atrocious “Devil’s Peak” is a case study of excellent performers being given so little to work with from a script. With a dyed-black beard and permanent scowl, Billy Bob Thornton plays a cartoonish version of menace, while the excellent Robin Wright is given even less to work with as a junkie mother with no character outside of what she means to the plot. And Wright’s son Hopper Penn (Sean Penn’s offspring) goes with a dour, non-performance that becomes a black hole in the center. "Devil's Peak" offers almost nothing of interest to the viewer outside of wishing its performers could escape from it and find better work.

Young's film opens with an explainer bit of narration, giving you an idea instantly how shallow this script is going to be. Jacob McNeely (Penn) lives in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina, where his father Charlie (Thornton), is the king of the drug trade. Charlie McNeely is such a caricature it plays as a parody. Thornton scowls and curses but never rises to a level of believable menace. Arguably, the typically excellent actor is miscast—this needed to be a more physically threatening presence like Ron Perlman on “Sons of Anarchy,” for example—but the script gives him nothing to play. He’s the roadblock in the way of our protagonist, the villain that needs to be defeated so the hero can escape.

And for that to work, the hero needs to be engaging. Jacob is most definitely not that. Penn may have come from acting titans, but he fails to find anything to hold onto with this non-character. The writers set up a Romeo & Juliet romance between Jacob and the stepdaughter (Katelyn Nacon) of a man (Brian d’Arcy James) trying to take down the McNeely drug trade but never take any time to develop it. That could have been the whole movie. How does the son of a criminal fall in love with the daughter of the law? Nope. This is not that movie. “Devil’s Peak” barely spends any time there, too content to wander with Jacob to various encounters involving potential betrayal by two soldiers in the McNeely army and a subplot with a corrupt cop played by Jackie Earle Haley, the only one who finds an ounce of depth in this script. The only positive thought I had during "Devil's Peak" was hoping Haley gets more consistent work.

“Devil’s Peak” embraces formula in such an uninteresting way that even Young’s creative team falls victim to its tedium. The whole thing looks horrendous with compositions that are either under-lit, poorly framed, or just barely considered at all. It’s one of those films in which one starts to ask how it went so wrong. "Devil's Peak" is based on a book by David Joy that is almost certainly better but has been reduced to its most basic plot points, stripping any potential from its characters and themes to trudge its way through its incredibly predictable narrative to an obviously bloody showdown. When a great book loses all that made it great, and it becomes a bad film? Well, that’s the devil’s work.

Now playing in theaters. 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

Devil's Peak movie poster

Devil's Peak (2023)

Rated NR

98 minutes

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