Going into the movie “Devil’s Path,” one’s first thought might be that a film about cruising “IRL” seems a bit outdated in the age of Grindr. For better or for worse, the days when going out to a park or a dark alley was the usual way to find an anonymous hook-up are essentially over.
Yet Matthew Montgomery’s brooding thriller, which opens for a limited run in LA on March 1, takes place entirely on an isolated wilderness trail where gay men go to do exactly that; knowing that it is set in the early 90’s – which you might not, unless you’ve already read a plot synopsis, since it’s not immediately apparent from anything in the film’s actual content – helps to explain why there are so many guys wandering around out there, but it doesn’t really explain why it’s the premise of a movie in 2019.
Of course, it’s not really about the act of cruising itself, although it taps into the fears of anybody who has ever risked getting it on with a total stranger in a location where nobody can hear you scream; instead, it uses that situation as a premise to explore more existential matters – or, perhaps more accurately, how our individual beliefs affect our ability to connect as human beings.
The narrative takes place over the course of a single day and night at a hiking spot (the “Devil’s Path” of the title), well-known as a gay cruising area, where several men have recently gone missing. Noah, a nervous and quirky misfit, is drawn to the handsome and confident Patrick, but they don’t seem like a match, at first. When a pair of belligerent hikers begin to threaten them, however, the two are forced to flee into the woods together; with their very survival seemingly at stake, they must try and overcome the fundamental differences in their personalities and find a way to trust each other – something that grows increasingly difficult as their individual secrets and lies begin to be revealed.
Montgomery, who directed and co-wrote (with Stephen Twardokus, who also plays Noah), says the project was inspired by an actual hiking trail in the Catskills, considered one of the most difficult in the country. He has said that he wanted the characters “to be trekking through rough terrain as a metaphor for their constant struggle with trying to connect.”
It’s an intriguing premise, if hardly an original one, and it serves to pique our interest in a story which is otherwise an exercise in horror movie formula – at least until it becomes heavy-handed, which happens pretty quickly. Once the two men start talking about their opposing views on the existence of love, it becomes obvious that they are not so much characters as representatives for their ideological perspectives; couple that with the fact that neither of them are particularly likable – Noah is too sketchy to gain our unreserved sympathy, and Patrick has an arrogance that borders on nastiness – and we cease to care much about their fate before they’ve even been placed in danger.
Once that happens, watching the film becomes about figuring out what’s really going on – a puzzle that Montgomery and Twardokus work hard at prolonging. As we find out that neither character is entirely what they seem (not a surprise), we also begin to question the circumstances surrounding their peril – and where the real threat to their safety is coming from. In this way, the movie starts to resemble one of those old-school mysteries where, fueled by implausible and previously undisclosed details of the backstory, one plot twist leads to another until the story ends up being something completely different from what it seemed to be at the beginning. At best, when the writing is clever and doesn’t take itself too seriously, such an approach is entertaining but gimmicky; at worst, it’s a tiresome cheat.
That’s especially disappointing in “Devil’s Path,” which ostensibly sets itself up to explore themes of self-inflicted queer isolation. Its two protagonists (or are they antagonists?), each wrapped in a protective cloak of secrecy, offer a great opportunity to examine how a people can work together in a struggle against outside threats when they are individually plagued by the toxic baggage they carry from years of homophobia, shaming and abuse. To put it another way, it could have been a look at how the LGBT community can avoid eating its own in the fight against those who would still see us repressed or worse.
Indeed, these ideas are evoked, whether by design or by accident; but they are quickly abandoned in favor of pursuing a bleak and convoluted psycho-drama which plays out all too predictably.
The thriller format also presents another opportunity – also unfortunately missed – to explore the conflict between self-preservation and sexual desire. Almost from the first few frames, it’s impossible not to make a connection between Montgomery’s film and “Stranger by the Lake,” Alain Guiraudie’s taut and sexy 2013 French suspenser presenting an all-too-similar scenario in which a young man is unable to stop himself from hooking up with a handsome stranger who will more than likely kill him. Guiraudie’s movie, by relying on visual storytelling and keeping its dialogue sparse, is far more effective – both as a thriller and as a thematic contemplation – than Montgomery’s, which devotes much of its screen time to wordy philosophical debates and overtly symbolic confrontations.
Of course, it’s not fair to criticize a movie for not being another movie, nor for being what it is rather than what it could have been. On its own merits, “Devil’s Path” is reasonably well-crafted, and though it’s too didactic to work as pure escapism, its engaging enough to hold your interest for its 90-minute runtime. Twardokus is interesting to watch as Noah, and J.D. Scalzo overcomes Patrick’s haughtiness enough to earn our sympathy by the end.
“Devil’s Path” took home the Best First Narrative Feature award at San Diego’s FilmOut LGBTQ film festival, as well as earning a Best Supporting Actor prize for Scalzo. It also made the rounds at other festivals, where it presumably did well enough to gain a distribution deal with Breaking Glass Pictures, who are releasing it into theatres before making it available on their VOD platform later in March.
Even if it isn’t quite as gripping – or as thought-provoking – as it might have aspired to be, “Devil’s Path” is worth your time and attention; at the very least, you’ll be showing support for queer films and the queer artists who make them. If you and yours enjoy creepy tales about being stalked in the woods, it might even be a fun date night.
Otherwise, you might want to hike down a different trail.