Writer-director Chris Easterly’s Southern Gothic crime drama Devil’s Hollow is a slow-burn tale of the past catching up with the citizens of a small town in Kentucky. Bobby Hawkins (Shuler Hensley) comes home to Devil’s Hollow after serving over a decade in prison for a robbery he committed with three other men. He seems to have mellowed with age and incarceration, now keeping a low profile during parole and house arrest. He’s wearing an ankle tracker monitored by a Parole Officer, his old friend Whitaker (Patrick Mitchell).
Complications begin immediately for Bobby when he’s confronted by his criminal co-conspirator Harry Casper (David Dwyer), who threatens him and demands his cut of the stolen money. Bobby tells Harry that there is no money because the fourth man on their crew took all the cash and fled, but he doesn’t believe him. To make matters worse, Bobby learns from his ex-wife that when he went away, Harry adopted his daughter, Alyssa (Skyler Hensley). She’s now a teenager and knows very little about her biological father. Bobby intends to make a new life for himself in peace and stay away from crime and violence, but the sins of his past make that impossible. He finds that his desire for a relationship with his daughter drives him to risk his newfound freedom.
“Bobby tells Harry that there is no money because the fourth man on their crew took all the cash and fled…”
Devil’s Hollow rolls out with a languid intensity, like a slow-motion train wreck steeped in the deceptively placid heat of a Southern summer. The images are beautiful as well as capture an authentic look at the American deep South, and the engaging performances seal the deal. Georgia native Hensley is well known in the South, and he is right at home in the disheveled skin of Bobby Hawkins. His naturalistic performance is perfect. Bobby trying to connect with Alyssa by reading to her from C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy is moving and inspired. This is the first time in this reviewer’s experience that anyone has ever referenced Perelandra in a film. Hat tip to the filmmaker. Dwyer is appropriately menacing, if a bit one-dimensional, as the unrepentant, evil Harry. Hensley brings Alyssa to life with grace and skill.
The South has always been a rich setting for drama with a particular flavor. It’s not magic that everyone can catch. When attempted by filmmakers who aren’t versed in Southern Gothic tradition, that has often resulted in clunky, cartoonish characters. Southerners are often portrayed as ignorant yokels inhabiting inconsequential flyover regions, and this sets up a sensitivity that demands a filmmaker tread very carefully when rendering Southern culture. Easterly avoids those stereotypes, with his characters painted with respectful gravitas.
Southern stories are improving, with some beautiful examples in the last ten years. Fans of Justified, based on work by Elmore Leonard, and Rectify, the brilliant passion project of Ray McKinnon, will find familiar context in Devil’s Hollow. In fact, Rectify deals with the same theme of a man coming home from prison with unfinished business to handle in his small Southern town. In the deep South, the past isn’t gone, memories linger. The sins and delights of those intense souls soak into the earth, and anyone walking there can stir them to life, bringing them back to bedevil the present. Bobby Hawkins must face the consequences of his actions, and redemption is hard to come by.
"…capture[s] an authentic look at the American deep South..."