“The Devil to Pay” is “Winter’s Bone” with Appalachian folkways and an Appalachian twang, a razor’s edge thriller about old feuds and older traditions, a world unto itself and quite different from the one “down the mountain.”
Veteran bit player Danielle Deadwyler carries it with the righteous fury of a woman imperiled by her geography, her circumstances and her “galivanting” husband.
Damn it’s good. And damn, she’s good in it.
Deadwyler plays Lemon Cassidy, keeping herself and her son fed and sheltered on a hardscrabble mountainside farm with a few chickens, a goat and a lot of okra.
Trouble marches right up to her door in the persons of Wade and Dixon (Jayson Warner Smith and Brad Carter). Her missing husband has a “debt.” She’s confused, “done paid my taxes” and all. But she needs to “Go see Tommy.”
Don’t worry about your little boy. Unless you don’t get that debt paid. “We’re stayin’ til it’s done,” Wade says.
Tommy Runion (Catherine Dyer, excellent) is the matriarch of the age-old Runion clan. She’s always cooking, chirping about “the secret” to mastering this pie or that pan-fried cornbread when she isn’t humming hymns.
Lemon’s husband “has skunked,” and “you know the consequences if he lights out.” Tommy smiles sweetly and holds Lemon’s hand as she purrs, “This is as hard on me as it is on you,” but unless you want her kin to “murder your boy,” well…
Husband and wife filmmakers Lane and Ruckus Skye (“The 7 Sevens”) send Lemon on an odyssey through an integrated, ancient and mythic Appalachia. Lemon’s Cassidy family has been there for generations, where everyone knows to “follow the creed” to survive.
But the two families supervising “the peace” have a Hatfields & McCoys history. Now Lemon’s caught up in it, bartering with the fixit man/shopkeeper Grady (Charles Black) to borrow his ancient Lincoln to hunt for her missing husband, agreeing to deliver his “vitriol” to some newcomers on the other side of the mountain on this “hallowed day.”
Grady’s scared to make the delivery himself. They’re a cult, and “vitriol” is archaic speech, like much of what we hear from everybody in this tightnit gene pool. It’s what people used to call sulfuric acid.
The awful choices and “consequences” of the machinations of the ruthless and well-armed test Lemon, and would break a weaker woman. But she’s got the “mother’s love” — that magic talisman of many a thriller screenplay — on her side.
The violence is as potent in threats as it is in actuality. Two mountaineers get a little boy (Ezra Haslam) to help them dig a hole. When the moon is full, it just might be Lemon’s son’s grave.
Deadwyler pulls off this hard woman among hard people with aplomb. Her every action and reaction is defensible, believable and justified. She makes Lemon easy to root for, accepting of the “righteous” nature of the backwoods justice her husband ran afoul of, even as we’re furious and fearful on her behalf.
“It’s a big’ol world,” she lectures her son, matter-of-factly. “Don’t nobody owe you nothing.” Even a break when her husband’s the one who apparently got them mixed up in all this.
“The Devil to Pay” — a great title, by the way — is a lean, mean straight-up genre thriller, leaning into some mountain stereotypes, twisting away from others. Throw in meth labs and kin you can ask for help and it’s “Winter’s Bone” with a mom and not a big sister on a quest.
And Deadwyler makes a grand, gritty heroine, a hard woman whose hard life makes the hard choices she faces now something she’ll just have to live with.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence.
Credits: Written and directed by Lane Skye, Ruckus Skye. An Uncork’d release.
Running time: 1:27