[Review] Devil's Path

Cruising is probably something that only gay people truly understand. Before the advent of apps like Grindr and Scruff, one of the safest ways for gay people, particularly gay men, to hook-up was to cruise local safe spots. In the straight world, pretty much anyone of the opposite sex you find could be a potential match. But, for gay people, you’d have to establish a codified language. A way of signalling interest or trolling places where you didn’t have to worry about getting beat up, or worse.

When you think about it, though, there’s kind of a dangerous dichotomy in going into the woods, looking for a hook-up. Sure, it was probably one of the safer ways of finding a like-minded person; but there’s also something inherently dangerous in it. You never really know what you’re going to get.

Devil’s Path is set in the early 90s, on a titular gay cruising park trail. We’re quickly introduced to Noah (Stephen Twardokus), a skittish man listening to generic heavy metal on his Walkman and oddly hiding in the brush. He’s shy, probably agoraphobic. He sets his sights on a handsome stranger named Patrick (JD Scalzo) and joins him on a park bench, making small talk and playing around with a Tarot deck.

When Patrick gets up, Noah follows and they run into a Park Ranger who warns them to stay away from a closed path. So, of course, they go through it, right past a couple Missing Persons signs. Turns out, men have gone missing up in Devil’s Path.

Once it becomes obvious the two men are looking for two different things, Patrick tries to leave but Noah asks him to wait until he relieves himself because he doesn’t want to get left alone. Patrick reluctantly agrees, but Noah doesn’t come back. Instead, a man rushes by with blood on his hands. Patrick quickly rushes to find Noah and discovers the man, prone on the ground and a big gash on his head. Noah tells Patrick that someone hit him on the head but before they can do anything, the man comes back with another in tow, shouting things like, “don’t let him get away.”

Suddenly, Noah and Patrick find themselves on the run; stalked by two men for reasons neither of them can understand. But both Noah and Patrick have their own secrets. Just what does Patrick know? And why does Noah have severe scars running down his back?

Devil’s Path was written by Matthew Montgomery and Stephen Twardokus and it’s Matthew’s first feature as a director and it’s an admirable first feature. The mystery at the heart of Devil’s Path was intriguing and I was surprised at how twisty the story actually was. Each of the leads have their own secrets that are slowly parceled out throughout the second and third act and it changed the type of story being told. It actually goes places I never would have expected and that narrative thrust kept me interested and curious, even as it barreled into problems.

The two leads aren’t very likable. I actually like unlikable characters, usually, but there’s absolutely no chemistry between the two, either romantically or platonically. They might as well have been reading lines to a wall. And the dialogue, when not directly involved with the mystery, fell flat; feeling more like small talk, rather than trying to find a deeper connection. Similarly, the story is focused on sewing distrust between Noah and Patrick and there’s an obvious metaphor of trekking through rough terrain while struggling to connect. But unfortunately the middle section starts to sag under the small talk.

When we reach the third act and the truths start to come out, though, I found myself fully engaged. Matthew and Stephen have a handle on writing a good mystery. They dole out surprises and twists at just the right moment, complemented by sudden bouts of violence, and the mystery hanging over the two leads is interesting. If only the character work were up to par.

It even gets a bit melancholy and some of the late narrative twists will either hit hard or cause an arched brow. Overall, I enjoyed Devil’s Path and I’m always here for more queer thrillers. And I do admire it for ending in an utterly different and melancholic place from where it began. It’s more than a simple “Men lost in the woods” thriller and some of the themes it digs into were ultimately engrossing. I just wish the route getting there was as interesting.

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