The right cast can make a plodding film watchable, an OK film good, and a good film great. One reason actors like Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep are so beloved, for instance, is because they can elevate something that’s otherwise predictable and bland. But for every great lead performance in a great film, there’s a group of supporting performers giving their all to wring maximum emotion out of a lackluster story, and in some ways that’s the more impressive achievement.
But sometimes even a deep ensemble bench and the committed talents of seasoned veterans can’t save a movie that doesn’t want to be saved. Sure, the actors offer their absolute best, but certain films just can’t meet their cast in the middle. The new crime drama Devil’s Peak is, sadly, one of these films, a predictable and stubbornly dull descent into darkness that falters time and again, despite considerable talent in front of and behind the camera.
Set in an Appalachian county of North Carolina, the film centers around the McNeely family, who run a local auto shop that doubles as a front for a meth-dealing empire. Patriarch Charlie (Billy Bob Thornton) is resigned to this life, and he’s good at it. He’s got plenty of money, a beautiful young partner, and even a local cop (Jackie Earle Haley) in his pocket. What he doesn’t have is a son who’s fully committed to carrying on the family business. Jacob McNeely (Hopper Penn) dreams of escaping the violent hold of his father, and imagines a scenario in which he could leave town with his drug addict mother (Robin Wright) and his popular girlfriend Maggie (Katelyn Nacon). Naturally, it’s not as easy as just loading up the car and driving away, particularly when his father is facing snitches on one side of his business, and a ruthless politician who also happens to be Maggie’s stepfather (Brian d’Arcy James) on the other.
So, Devil’s Peak takes on one of the standard crime drama formats—the attempt at a clean getaway—and follows Jacob as he tries to navigate his complicated and frightening family dynamic while also working to build a future for himself however he can. It’s a potent formula that’s worked for a lot of storytellers—including David Joy, whose book Where All Light Tends To Go is the basis for the film—but in the case of Devil’s Peak, the formula fails to produce anything beyond the most perfunctory of plot developments and moments of emotional turmoil. Jacob seems miserable in his life as a perpetual accomplice simply because the film requires him to be, Charlie is malevolent and unstable, and Jacob’s mother is filled with despair because she has to be in order to explain Jacob’s unhappiness. There are almost no attempts at humor, few efforts to stray from the formula, and a kind of stubborn devotion to the desaturated, misery-laden crush of it all. It might be meant to put us in the characters’ shoes, but instead it just ends up making you uncomfortable, and the washed-out, by-the-book compositions overseen by director Ben Young don’t help matters.
For their part, the cast is committed to their roles, and determined to squeeze out any drop of meaning that they can muster. Thornton and Wright are still capable of making you feel things, and there are moments when Thornton rises above the ho-hum plot to capture something truly menacing. Penn stands between these two giants, one of whom is his real-life mother, with commendably capable work, and of course Haley is always welcome in a film like this. But even when something’s working in the ensemble, it’s fleeting and forgettable and the emotional threads unravel before they can really gain any tension. There’s decent behind the scenes talent here—actor/writer Robert Knott received a screenplay credit for 2008’s well-received Western Appaloosa—but it all seems to fall flat the moment anything starts to get interesting, like the film is determined to swerve in the wrong direction every chance it gets.
That makes Devil’s Peak frustrating on a level that some other movie misfires simply aren’t, because you can see all the good ingredients that were meant to come together. The cast is solid, the film’s pedigree is good, there’s a sense of direction and competence laced through it all, but the whole is lesser than its parts. It’s hard to watch not just because it fails, but because you see all the ways it might have succeeded.
Devil’s Peak opens in theaters February 17 and on-demand February 24