Devil’s Gate will give you splinters. It’s a taut thriller with layered, underlying themes that never seems to be the movie you think it is at any moment you think you know.
Texturally, the film looks like it will hurt if you get too close. The jabs this film offers aren’t just in the peeling paint and parched landscape but in the gritty ways the characters interact and the story that unfolds with increasingly unexpected turns.
From its opening scene, it appears you’ve checked into a traditional horror movie, complete with a lost stranger on a solitary road and a creepy farmhouse. Horror tropes literally hang from every available beam. So when what you expect to happen next never materializes, it quickly becomes clear that this movie is already one step ahead. Technically listed as a Sci-Fi Thriller, it never lets you forget its horror heritage. In a movie world where Scream and Cabin in the Woods have deconstructed the genre, Devil’s Gate uses these images to remind you and make you feel a certain way, but it relies on tight storytelling and fierce acting to tell its story and draw you in.
Most good movies in these genres have metaphorical meanings: the endless consumerism of the zombie, the red scare of the body snatcher, the fear of industrialism and automation of the stitched-together monster. The one behind Devil’s Gate is the fear of the other, and Clay Staub, the director and co-writer, wastes no time in making Federal Agent Daria Francis (Amanda Schull) the subject of that fear. A wife and child (Bridget Regan and Spencer Drever) have gone missing in a small town. While all indicators point to the husband Jackson Pritchard (Milo Ventimiglia), relationships in this small town are so intertwined that Sheriff Gruenwell (Jonathan Frakes in a small role that will have you asking, “does he – is he?”) and his deputy, Colt Salter (Shawn Ashmore) tell her to focus her energies anywhere else. She’s the pushy outsider who doesn’t understand him like they do. However, Agent Francis is not about to be cowed by the misogyny and distrust she encounters. She has a job to do, and that commitment is heavily colored by the outcome of her previous case.
It is in Agent Francis’ backstory and soon her investigation where a main theme of Devil’s Gate emerges: Every character is caged by their beliefs. At various points throughout the narrative, those psychological cages are opened and the characters are faced with freedom or the choice to withdraw. Shawn Ashmore’s Deputy Salter shines in his moment when his naive, green lawman stops solely following instructions and chooses to do what he thinks is right – with spectacular consequences. Milo Ventimiglia gives Pritchard’s cage a terrifying darkness touched with beautiful moments of tenderness and despair.
Agent Daria Francis is the hero of the story, and Amanda Schull brings her to life with conviction. Director Clay Staub revealed that the original script called for a male FBI agent, so it was refreshing to see Ms. Schull tackle another strong lead in a role typically given to a man. While none of the characters ever let us forget that the bizarre circumstances have them frightened, they manage to hold onto their humanity. Yet no matter how frightened, no matter how bizarre the situation is, Agent Francis manages to maintain laser focus on her goal: to uncover the truth, consequences be damned.
Devil’s Gate is not a one-trick pony where the whole story is supported by a few twists. It thoroughly explores and tells a story with purposeful, sentient characters, while nodding thoughtfully to the genres that inspired it. If twisting, genre-bending films make you squeal with joy, then put Devil’s Gate on your list of must-see movies this year.