Now, with her son’s life under threat and Tommy’s family keeping a close watch, it falls to Lemon to somehow make good on that debt and avoid shattering a fragile truce which has kept a bloody war at bay for years.
Ruckus and Lane Skye’s thriller begins with a quote from a census taker (this one didn’t get their liver eaten with fava beans and a nice Chianti) which states, “They want nothing from you and God help you if you try to interfere”. This sets the scene for a bleak peek into this somewhat secret, self-governing, self-sufficient society and its habitants, of which the tenacious Lemon is the focus.
It’s a sludgy world, both morally and literally, which pits Lemon against Tommy in a cordial and procedural way but one with an undercurrent of breath-taking cruelty, with the impressive Dyer dispensing warm, invaluable, homespun recipe advice alongside the ice-cold ultimatum “Return what’s mine or I’ll murder your boy”. As Lemon runs out of options to right her husband’s wrong, she chooses to deliver a consignment of vitriol to a fringe religious group in order to gain access a working mode of transport and conduct her own investigation.
The Skyes, in addition to providing the screenplay for this, also wrote the shamelessly entertaining teen revenger Becky. There are parallels in terms of brutal, casual violence but where Becky amped up the spectacular gore, most of the violence in The Devil To Pay takes place just out of shot with a glimpse of the gruesome aftermath, matching the low-key, downbeat grimness of Lemon’s quest. Think Winter’s Bone with even less hope.
The authenticity of portraying an austere, slow-moving lifestyle also extends to the pacing of the movie itself but that isn’t to say that the proceedings are lacking in incident. Time has to be taken to show how, even in this widest of open spaces, there are walls which begin to close in. This also allows for that sojourn into spiritual strangeness, which may seem initially a flight of odd, grisly fantasy but their unshakeable “Back to the ether” ethos has a lasting, memorable resonance come the final act.
The effectiveness of The Devil To Pay hinges primarily on Deadwyler’s performance and she puts in an absolute stunner, portraying a worn down but unbowed stalwart of such a bleak landscape with strength and subtlety. Praise must also go to young Haslam as the kid caught in the middle and those early scenes with mother and son have a lovely warmth about them, certainly more than enough to set the alarm bells ringing among the audience once the stakes are raised.
There’s a concern that when the tale heads towards more familiar back-country, score settling territory, the clichés will pile up alongside the bodies but the inevitable confrontations are managed with the same quiet, focused, controlled rage found in its main characters. The line “You do the work, you reap the reward” sums up perfectly the impersonal, business-like approach of these rural folks even when the task in hand is truly dreadful.
The distinct lack of leavening humour on display – aside from a couple of moments that might raise a smile from those who enjoy their laughs jet black – may result in an experience too gloomy and gruelling for those looking for their retribution served swift and bloody, with a side of wisecracks. For the rest, the careful build of tension, those strange, impactful bursts of brutality and a welcome gender flip for its main protagonists should hold the interest throughout.
The Devil To Pay is a no-nonsense thriller which proves that, for all of our fears of the supernatural, there are fewer things more scary than ordinary people. Like the community portrayed, it goes about its business calmly and efficiently but don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by its lack of bluster. There’s an unpleasant surprise lurking beneath the humility.