As cruel and unsparing as the moral universe that The Devil to Pay establishes can be, writer/directors Lane and Ruckus Skye are careful to keep it from tipping over into casual, stagy maliciousness. This is just the way things have to be, the film keeps reminding us, and blood is never shed lightly or without consequence. Perhaps that’s why when blood is finally shed in the film, as Lemon finds herself caught in the middle of a generations-old family feud, it carries the weight not only of the deaths themselves, but also the guilt of those who’ve caused them. The plot’s stark simplicity, as well as its relentless pacing, could have suited an exploitation film, but its gravity and its characterizations are much more in line with the Southern Gothic tradition, or even classical tragedy. That’s not to say that the film lacks for visceral, immediate moments – there’s a shootout or two that are wonderfully tense and gritty – but, in the end, it’s the human story, not the short bursts of action, that are hard to shake.
“…a performance that’s as raw and resolute and heartfelt as an actor can give.”
Again, a lot of that is due to Deadwyler, in a performance that’s as raw and resolute and heartfelt as an actor can give. Lemon has some horrible things done to her throughout the film, and she does some horrible things herself, but the character never feels like anything less than a living, breathing, driven, and desperate person. Deadwyler brings a deep and empathetic soulfulness to all of it: a breakdown after uncovering a horrific act of violence, an idyllic moment of respite with her son on the farm, a fearless walk into the domain of a deranged religious cult. One moment, she’s chilling in her mercilessness, the next, she’s heartrendingly humane.
In fact, at times, Deadwyler is so good, and her character’s grim journey so engrossing, that it’s easy to lose sight of all the other superlative stuff that The Devil to Pay surrounds her with: the keen supporting performances (especially Dyer, who’s unforgettable), Sherman Johnson’s evocative lensing of the film’s remote Georgia locations, Carter’s spare, haunting score, and so on.
This largely unheralded, brilliantly crafted film may be a small one, but the impression that it leaves is as immense, beautiful, and fraught with hard-bitten philosophy as the forgotten – or, sadly, ignored – corner of America in which it takes place.
"…steeped in our own innate sense of morality and justice...of its backcountry Appalachian setting."