Review: ‘Devil’s Peak’ is a slice of small town melodrama packed with powerful performances

devil's peak
via Screen Media

Devil’s Peak is a slice of small-town Americana headlined by Robin Wright (Wonder Wonder 1984), Billy Bob Thornton (The Gray Man), and Jackie Earle Harley (Alita: Battle Angel), one that delves into the lives of one family ruled over by a meth-peddling kingpin patriarch.  

Adapted by Robert Knott from the novel Where All Light Tends to Go, it charts the downward trajectory of Jacob McNeeley (Hopper Penn), as he is torn between love and family loyalties. This low-key drama is sparse on dialogue, but goes large on atmospherics, as the brooding presence of North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains cast an imposing shadow.  

Charlie (Thornton) is the antagonistic father figure in this close-knit community chamber piece, sporting a shaven head and jet-black beard – making quite the impression in those opening minutes. His son Jacob is more reserved, less confrontational, and softer around the edges after years of an overbearing man dragging him up.  

Helping his father run the local garage, whilst actively peddling meth amphetamine, Jacob is entrenched in their family business and can see no way out. Only his relationship with Maggie (Emma Booth), daughter to the town councilor seems to offer some salvation. His mother (Wright) and father are separated, meaning he spends time between them, trying to help her stay off drugs in an effort to bring them closer together. 

In truth, Wright only has a small part in proceedings, staying clear of Thornton on firebrand form. Disheveled, delicate, and compassionate despite the years of self-inflicted drug abuse – she holds her own against her onscreen husband in their fleeting moments. Penn, on the other hand, displays a wounded fragility throughout, reminiscent in many ways of his father Sean. 

Onscreen he possesses a brooding intensity as Jacob, which more than matches Thornton for gumption if not in terms of magnetism. As this tale unravels in the shadow of those imposing rock formations, a slow-burn momentum starts to take hold, which brings to mind the Jennifer Lawrence breakout hit Winter’s Bone. With old friendships between town sheriff Dwight ( Haley) and Charlie being tested, it takes no time at all for events to reach their bloody conclusion.  

Looking to protect his territory and kingpin status, Charlie will stop at nothing – even if that means banishing his only son. With shades of A Simple Plan in evidence as well, Devil’s Peak feels like a contemporary noir, populated with an intriguing mix of unsavory characters. Revenge, retribution, and savage retribution is just part of its make-up.  

As the body count increases and desperation takes hold, McNeeley senior engages in a power play with Jacob that can only end one way. As the son seeks to rescue his girlfriend from imminent danger, director Ben Young continues to increase onscreen tensions. Charlie would rather die than give up what rightfully belongs to him, but nonetheless admires Jacob for finally developing a backbone.  

When all that truth comes home to roost the McNeeley legacy becomes a backwoods bloodbath. Corrupt law enforcement combines with the single-minded arrogance of a man who considers himself untouchable, producing an enigmatic endgame worth the wait. As two generations have their own Mexican stand-off, an undercurrent of tragedy begins to infiltrate every frame of this small-town drama. 

What starts out as a character piece held together in part by the connection between Thornton and Penn, soon morphs into something else. The book by David Joy may have served as the template here, but through this ensemble cast Where Light Tends to Go really hits home.  

It may be a simple story of ingrained family loyalty, and the suffocating responsibility of maintaining that legacy, but Devil’s Peak succeeds in making these themes feel fresh. This film also illustrates that for some young actor’s ability is more than just genetic. Holding his own amongst a cast of supporting players, which features at least one Oscar-winner, Penn more than earns his stripes.  

Acquiescing to his elders, as Thornton delivers yet another nuanced performance, Devil’s Peak might yet be the making of Penn, who carries a legacy of another kind through his father; a man who has built his reputation off the back of numerous on-screen performances, each carrying their own degree of intensity.  

Perhaps now is the time for Penn to move out of that formidable shadow, take on cinema according to his own ground rules, and carve a furrow just as accomplished.  


'Devil’s Peak' might be just another small town melodrama, but is elevated by an excellent ensemble cast featuring Robin Wright, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jackie Earle Haley. Brooding, powerful, and every inch the Americana melodrama - Devil’s Peak packs a punch and just keeps on coming.