The Devil to Pay was originally titled Reckoning, and the film delivers one in absolutely shattering fashion.
There’s something almost mythic in the struggle of its central character, an implacable but unfailingly noble young mother and farmer named Lemon (Danielle Deadwyler), to set right a situation that threatens everything she holds sacred. And there’s something profoundly moving – painful, righteous, bracing – in seeing it play out the way it ultimately does. This is, to its great advantage, a movie as strongly steeped in our own innate sense of morality and justice as it is the uniquely insular culture of its backcountry Appalachian setting.
In fact, were it not for the incredible characterization of Lemon and the utter forcefulness of every aspect of Deadwyler’s performance, that setting could have been the most memorable and sharply drawn element in the entire film.
“…they’ll kill him if Tommy doesn’t get what she believes she’s owed.”
“The mountain,” as The Devil to Pay plainly refers to it, is a verdant and beautiful place, but also a hard one that engenders a similar hardness in its people. Far away and unshackled from the larger world of American laws and cultural norms, and eschewing both the comforts and stresses of modernity, it’s a land soaked in tears, blood, and vitriol – the latter, in a literal sense as well as a metaphoric one. The scattered souls who choose to exist there live as outsiders, dependent only on the land and on one another. They live by “The Creed,” a mutually understood set of laws that governs their (by choice, limited) dealings with one another in the absence of mainstream society’s influence. Steal the property of a fellow community member, for example, and have your hands cut off – it’s that primal and, also, that severe.
It’s within this culture that Lemon sternly but lovingly raises her preadolescent son Coy (Ezra Haslam), mostly in the absence of her rambling husband – who’s gone missing for the umpteenth time from the small farm that she fastidiously maintains without him. According to the Creed, his debts are Lemon’s, as well, and when he ends up in hock to their neighbor, the soft-spoken but utterly ruthless matriarch Tommy Runion (Catherine Dyer), it’s Lemon’s responsibility to settle things. To ensure that she does so, Tommy sends her sons Wade (Jayson Warner Smith) and Dixon (Brad Carter, also the film’s composer) to watch over Coy, with the understanding that they’ll kill him if Tommy doesn’t get what she believes she’s owed.
"…steeped in our own innate sense of morality and justice...of its backcountry Appalachian setting."