‘Devil’s Peak’ Review: Billy Bob Thornton (Almost) Carries A Southern Gothic Crime Thriller

Thornton is so good as a two-fisted, menacing drug kingpin he makes you overlook a multitude of flaws, but the movie implodes in a cacophony of noise and chaos.

Billy Bob Thornton in “Devil’s Peak.” Screen Media

After a brief hiatus, Billy Bob Thornton returns to the screen in Devil’s Peak, another backwoods Southern Gothic crime thriller, playing the kind of menacing, two-fisted role that made him famous. The movie isn’t much, but his unique whiskey-slogging, snuff-spitting redneck routine is the thing he does better than anyone else, and he does it so well in Devil’s Peak that he makes you overlook a multitude of flaws.

DEVIL’S PEAK ★★ (2/4 stars)
Directed by: Ben Young
Written by: Robert Knott
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Robin Wright, Jackie Earle Haley,  Hopper Penn, Emma Booth
Running time: 97 mins.

In the Appalachian Mountains of Jackson County, North Carolina, he is Charlie McNeely, a mean and ruthless drug dealer whose son Jacob was initiated into the family business, making money cooking and selling amphetamines the way some kids supplement their weekly allowances mowing lawns. But now Jacob is old enough to find his conscience and a girlfriend who makes him feel guilty. His long-suffering mother has already surrendered to a wasted existence of meth and alcohol addiction, but no matter how hard he tries to ease her pain, his efforts to save her life are squandered. So he thinks about escape, but his father is a bald, raunchy thug covered with tattoos who rules his hick-town country dynasty with brute force. Worse still, he has an arsenal of weapons he won’t hesitate to use on anyone who crosses him on both sides of the law. And the respectable girl of Jacob’s dreams also happens to be the daughter of the town’s most respected citizen who — in addition to being one of Charlie’s chief enemies —  is running for governor and determined to put an end to the McNeely clan’s source of illegal income, landing the boy’s hopes of running away in double jeopardy and leading to a round of contrived and pointless violence.  

Jacob is played by newcomer Hopper Penn, the son of Sean Penn and Robin Wright, who in a few brief scenes manages to steal the film from everyone else as the boy’s ravaged mother Virgie. Torn between loyalty to his father and avenging his mother’s suicide, Penn’s inexperience shows in a performance that is too brooding and lethargic to move the weak narrative along at the faster pace it badly needs. It will be interesting to see him again in a better film than this. The rest of the cast does a commendable job of trying to give the film some thrust besides the gunfire, but the script by Robert Knott and Ben Young’s splotchy direction seem to have been mangled in the editing room. Emma Booth, as Charlie’s salty, acerbic mistress, and Katelyn Nacon, as the girl who urges Jacob to ditch his villainous father’s control and go straight, are too undeveloped to have much impact, and Brian d’Arcy James, as the girl’s politically ambitious father, hardly registers at all.

This pretty much leaves Billy Bob Thornton to carry the film alone. His folksy way of delivering a multitude of chicken and waffles down-home colloquialisms like he’s spitting buttermilk pays off, even though most of the lines make no sense. “If this thang goes off for some reason,” he drawls as he hands his son a pistol, “it touches mud’n’water.” Huh? “Didja evah notice how the skin on the outside of yo’ lip is thicka than the skin on the inside of yo’lip?” You finally give up trying to figure out what he’s talking about and just watch the business he invents to make a vile character interesting between shootouts. In the end, 90% of the cast is dead and what’s left of the movie implodes in a cacophony of noise and chaos. With terrific Appalachian ambience and moments of carefully constructed action, Devil’s Peak is not a terrible movie, but in the bigger picture, it’s not a particularly memorable one, either. It just lies there on the table, like day-old grits.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.


‘Devil’s Peak’ Review: Billy Bob Thornton (Almost) Carries A Southern Gothic Crime Thriller