Producers: Griff Furst, Josh Kesselman, Robert Knott, Robin Wright, Jamie Hilton, Ryan Donnell Smith, Nathan Klingher, Ryan Winterstern and Sterling Griffin   Director: Ben Young   Screenplay: Robert Knott   Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Hopper Penn, Katelyn Nacon, Brian D’Arcy James, Emma Booth, Jackie Earle Haley, Robin Wright, David Kallaway, Jared Bankens, Mark Ashworth and Harrison Gilbertson   Distributor: Screen Media

Grade: D+

The peak is more of a molehill in this backwoods crime-family melodrama, which was shot in Georgia but is set in North Carolina (as a license plate thrust into the forefront of one shot informs us, as if the mention of “Jackson County, North Carolina” by characters several times weren’t enough).  Adapted by actor Robert Knott from the well-regarded 2015 debut novel “Where All Light Tends to Go” by David Joy, it’s a gloomy tale of an ultimately fatal conflict between Charlie McNeely (Billy Bob Thornton), who runs a meth distribution ring, and his son Jacob (Hopper Penn), who longs to escape the business, and his dad’s malign influence, with the love of his life Maggie (Katelyn Nacon), the stepdaughter of the ambitious local politician (Brian D’Arcy James) who’s scheming to put Charlie out of business.

The family dysfunction extends to Jacob’s mother Virgie (Robin Wright), a dissolute drug addict whom Charlie has long since discarded and left to her addiction and, apparently, prostitution.  Jacob visits her in her run-down rustic home on occasion, while showing his disgust with his father’s having replaced her with sexpot Josie (Emma Booth) instead.  Charlie also maintains a relationship of convenience with Rogers (Jackie Earle Haley), the local sheriff and a seemingly level-headed sort who tries to keep things reasonably calm while skimming some cash off the meth trade for himself.  

But the lawman’s attempt proves none too successful, as the landscape is littered with corpses before the film comes to an end; it will come as no surprise who escapes with their lives.   One of the qualities of the movie—not necessarily a virtue, but certainly an accomplishment—is the utterly depressing atmosphere production designer Lauren Crasco and cinematographer Michael McDermott create.  The images they’ve fashioned will certainly convince you that Jackson County is a place you’ll never want to visit.

You’d never want to meet the characters, either.  Charlie is an utterly ruthless fellow, who won’t hesitate to deal summarily with underlings he suspects of cheating him, and anyone else too; it’s not at all surprising that when Virgie dies of a gunshot wound, Jacob assumes that his father is responsible.  But it is surprising that Thornton is relatively restrained in expressing the guy’s malevolence; though he certainly snaps out lines when appropriate, he doesn’t chew the scenery as enthusiastically as you might expect. 

Thornton’s reluctance to go full throttle is perhaps explained by the pallidness of Penn, the son of Wright and Sean Penn, who evinces little screen presence and even less dramatic intensity.  Wright, on the other hand, is quite persuasive as a woman who’s the antithesis of the elegance the actress is better known for (see, for instance, her Claire Underwood).  Haley, like Thornton, underplays here, at least until the final reel, when he lets loose—a contrast to Harrison Gilbertson, who makes Rogers’ deputy Bull the sort of preening thug that gives law enforcement a bad name.  It’s a portrayal to make the audience long for him to get his comeuppance—which, of course, he does.  The rest of the supporting cast ranges from the over-the-top James and Booth to mousy Nacon, whose Maggie is as bland as her beau Jacob.  (Needless to say, there’s zero chemistry between the two; you have to take their passion on faith.)

Much of what’s wrong with “Devil’s Peak” results from the prosaic direction of Ben Young, who fails to bring any sense of excitement even to a car chase in the last reel and a shoot-out that follows, and Merlin Eden’s soporific editing, which further leeches any energy from the narrative. The movie is also weighed down by some clumsy attempts at symbolism–what could anyone do with Virgie’s early complaint about a light bulb going out, only to have the camera pan up to a broken light bulb on the ceiling when her body is later discovered? Or with her remark that she interprets a painting of a horseman as a man looking to ride off to death (naturally, that painting becomes the focus of an ending in which corpses are strewn around the property)?

Adam Spark’s score adds some pleasantly rustic twang to the proceedings; a few folkish songs are also included in the soundtrack.  But the laid-back music does little to increase the intensity level in what, after all, is supposed to be a tense thriller.

But in reality “Devil’s Peak” is less a thriller than a brooding tale of domestic dysfunction in a small-time crime family that’s unlikely to raise your pulse rate or give you an adrenaline rush.  It winds up like a drab theatrical version of “Justified,” concentrating on the low-class crooks without the heroic lawman.