Billy Bob Thornton, Not Peaking

‘Devil’s Peak,’ an unthrilling rural North Carolina crime thriller, is part of an actor’s long fade

Billy Bob Thornton, in part thanks to his generally fantastic name, is one of those show business personalities who never really goes away. You just sort of wonder what he’s been up to lately sometimes. And at the age of 66, Billy Bob Thornton’s at the stage of his career where he can take and does take whatever random project he feels like taking. Did he like the script? Or did they just offer a good paycheck?

Devil’s Peak appears to do both, although it’s hard to tell. The extremely low-key release appeared in some theaters on the 17th, and is now available on streaming as of the 24th. Based on the novel Where All The Light Tends To Go by David Joy, Devil’s Peak is typical of that author’s oeuvre, dealing with impoverished rural North Carolina. Billy Bob Thornton plays Charlie McNeeley, a crime lord in that area, and I must emphasize above all else, that description makes his character sound way cooler than he is in practice.

Billy Bob Thornton straddles an interesting line here. On one end, his lazy, indifferent delivery to most of his lines could read as him just putting the least possible effort into the job. But then, that’s the beauty of Charlie McNeeley as a character. He, too, is at the point in life where he’s so indifferent and just plain bored that every action is going through the motions. The trouble is that, as a crime lord, going through the motions can sometimes mean brutally murdering someone without warning. Charlie McNeeley is so inured to his criminal lifestyle, and the complete lack of consequences for it, that the closest he gets to an evil scheme is dumping a couple of bodies and being a little rude to the police when they show up asking questions.

That’s another intriguing, understated element of Devil’s Peak, is how the cops aren’t even slightly helpful, or particularly smart. The older ones know Charlie McNeeley is a criminal mastermind and don’t seem to at all mind that he’s basically destroying the county by distributing drugs because they’re getting paybacks. There’s a neverending inertia at play in Devil’s Peak that renders the story rather timeless. Winter’s Bone some thirteen years ago is the same basic type of narrative, and Devil’s Peak isn’t really out of date so much as it is about the same kind of incompetent cops and robbers that just never seem to go away because no one has tried to fix any of the problems in the rural United States for decades at this point.

The fact that the two best parts of the movie are understated is probably making you wonder what part of Devil’s Peak is overstated. And…well…that’s our actual main character, Jacob McNeeley, played by Hopper Penn, son of Sean Penn. Already this is starting to sound not-so-great. Jacob McNeeley’s character arc is basically that he realizes crime sucks and he doesn’t want to be a criminal anymore, so he just passively reacts to his father’s low-energy orders until finally scraping together a plan to rob him, explaining why Devil’s Peak opens with a flash-forward to Jacob McNeeley taking cover behind a car with a gun.

The setting of suffocatingly pointless rural America is a timeless one. Jacob McNeeley’s end of the story, by contrast, engages in cliches, and not even very good ones. He wants to leave, this girl convinces him a better life is possible. They’re both high school students, apparently, despite neither one of them at all looking like high school students. His girlfriend’s stepfather is also a district attorney, a surprisingly irrelevant detail because so much of the plot is so weirdly nonconfrontational. Characters can’t even shake each other down for money without being oddly polite about it. Everyone’s really determined to maintain the status quo- despite the status quo really sucking.

When Charlie McNeeley kills a snitch in the latter part of the movie, he seems offended less by the threat to his livelihood and more the personal betrayal, despite his not even liking the person in question that much. This is goofily followed up in turn by a clueless, obnoxious younger police officer showing up at the crime scene and antagonizing Jacob McNeeley for no reason. This confirms to the young man that the situation really can’t be salvaged.

Devil’s Peak has several good individual scenes like this. Another standout is a typical Charlie McNeeley business meeting, where he relays instructions to his son while receiving a misspelled tattoo, and also interacting with his equally trashy younger wife played by Emma Booth. Devil’s Peak is great at making crime seem not at all cool. For a rich crime lord, Charlie McNeeley has little apparent use for money aside from just stashing it in a safe and living a garbage lifestyle indistinguishable from any other rural small business white trash tyrant.

The trouble with Devil’s Peak is that this is all subtext. There’s almost no actual text, no real emotional stakes, and for a ninety minute film there’s a surprisingly large amount of padding in the form of overdone music to mostly pointless visuals. Devil’s Peak certainly makes an effort but ultimately doesn’t makes a convincing argument that anyone involved outside a few actors is capable of much better work than this. Which is, ironically enough, the closest Charlie McNeeley gets to an explanation for why he does crime at all–because he’s a criminal.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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