For people today, dating can be as easy as swiping right on your phone. In a pre-Internet world, however, you had to go to greater lengths if you wanted some company: you actually had to go outside and talk to people. This rings true for the characters in Devil’s Path, the directorial debut from Matthew Montgomery. Two men visiting the film’s namesake—a remote park trail known for male-on-male cruising—soon find themselves dealing with stranger danger. Yet as the story furthers along, it becomes apparent that something is amiss. In fact, the path the film takes is not at all straight, but rather twisted.
Set in the early nineties, Devil’s Path begins with timid Noah (Stephen Twardokus) entering the eponymous park trail. There, he meets Patrick (JD Scalzo), someone who is his total opposite. They immediately butt heads because of their differing personalities: Noah comes off as thoughtful and idealistic whereas Patrick is cynical and doesn’t care about monogamy. Their already uneasy time together is prolonged when Noah is attacked by another man. To evade their aggressors, Noah and Patrick venture deep into the woods. As day turns into night, paranoia seeps in. One of these men is hiding a secret, and the other will be dying to find out what it is.
If you think this is going to be another cat-and-mouse thriller, you’re half right. Although, the roles of cat and mouse aren’t entirely set in stone. Director Matthew Montgomery, who co-wrote the screenplay with Noah’s Twardokus, is not afraid to toy with your perception of what’s what and who’s who. Yes, there are the two random men stalking Noah and Patrick on the trail, but they’re not paramount to the story. The real dilemma lies between the main characters.
Noah and Patrick are two guys who don’t get along, and hearing them argue is taxing. They spend a good part of the film—even when they’re running for their lives—pontificating about love, life, and hookups. We thankfully get a reprieve from their tiresome tête-à-tête as the core mystery becomes clearer. By this, a plot development regarding that aforesaid secret eventually perks things up.
The first two-thirds of the movie are notably weighed down by the tiresome drama between the main characters, but pushing through to the end, there’s something admirable about the filmmakers’ choice to travel down a path less taken. The reflective final act is most welcomed as it banks on the audience’s interpretation instead of hand-feeding us distinct explanations.
The big twist in Devil’s Path isn’t shocking, and it’s nothing we haven’t seen in plenty of other movies. Most viewers will correctly guess which of the two main characters is being shady. Predictable? A little bit. It’s also highly possible the filmmakers wanted their audience to be in the know all along.
Of the two protagonists, Stephen Twardokus has the more complex role: his Noah is nervous and wiry, ready to switch gears at any given chance. His sharp performance makes Noah appear both unwary and manic. JD Scalzo’s Patrick is less developed, but the actor’s terse portrayal is reasonable seeing as he has comparatively less to work with.
Another important character in the film worth talking about is the trail itself. With the environment having such a prominent physical presence, many scenes are swathed in dulled greens and sandy browns. The lack of bright colors adds to the grim story at hand. Scenic shots of treetops, wild vegetation, clearings, mountain silhouettes—they help to establish a sense of isolation. In turn, the trail really does feel like a world away despite its proximity to civilization.
Lately it seems like the horror genre has been trying to be more inclusive. So when a film like Devil’s Path pops up, people notice. The first-time director’s wide-eyed entrance is shaky, but his commentary is worth noting. He raises specific issues regarding gay men with sincerity, and he makes up for the clumsy first two acts of the film by delivering an affecting and unexpected conclusion.
Since there are so few serious LGBTQ themed horror movies, the ones that get made are bound to have a message about the cultures being depicted. The events of Devil’s Path occur at a time when gay and lesbian rights still had a way to go before people felt safer. In fact, homosexuality remained criminalized in various U.S. states until 2003. Throughout the nineties, individual states were slow to add sexual orientation to their hate crime statutes. In the meantime, people like Patrick back then felt vulnerable just walking in the “wrong” neighborhood. The act of cruising is stigmatized and frowned upon, but for the visitors of Devil’s Path, the place was a sort of sanctuary.
Your reason for watching this film will make all the difference when it comes time to ask yourself, “Did I like that?” Those wanting a run-of-the-mill wilderness thriller might be disappointed because a lot of Devil’s Path is atypical in spite of its reliance on familiar tropes. The suspense levels aren’t exactly high either. On the other hand, critical thinkers might be more forgiving if they’re looking to evaluate the movie’s themes and subject matter. Whatever your justifications for watching are, just keep in mind that Devil’s Path is well-intentioned. What’s good about the film is mostly in the finale, but the way to get there is a bit of a hike.