Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Clay Staub
Writer: Peter Aperlo, Clay Staub
Producer: Scott Mednick, Andre Rouleau, Valerie D’Auteuil, Ian Dimerman, Brendon Sawatzky
Stars: Amanda Schull, Milo Ventimiglia, Shawn Ashmore, Bridget Regan, Jonathan Frakes, Javier Botet
Investigating a farmer over the disappearance of his wife and son leads an FBI agent and a small town deputy into an unfathomable mystery.
I have to believe that “Devil’s Gate” had grander ambitions at some point during its creative conception. I have to believe that because I can’t imagine producers, financiers, and onscreen talent willingly went all in on what could have been a humdinger of a premise only to deliver a ho-hum episode of “The X-Files” in DTV feature form.
The first clue of an “oh, hell with it” attitude comes from the cursory characterization of FBI agent Daria Francis. Daria just arrived in Devil’s Gate, a small North Dakotan farm town whose gruff sheriff (Jonathan Frakes turning in a scant two scenes worth of work) greets her with a scowl while likable deputy Colt Salter (Shawn Ashmore being Shawn Ashmore) welcomes her warmly.
Daria earned banishment to these typical horror flick sticks by letting too tight of a ponytail trump her compassion, leading to an unfortunate woman’s avoidable death. “Devil’s Gate” deems this bit of background important enough to deserve its own flashback before promptly receding back where it came from. I doubt that a quick connective callback via discarded dialogue later down the line was this piece’s only planned purpose. My guess says the redemptive arc of learning to relate to people instead of to protocol bore more weight in a draft of the script that didn’t make it to the final cut.
Daria’s other flash of individuality comes from an admission that she quit smoking, although she keeps a cigarette pack in her pocket to remind her. Remind her of what, she doesn’t specify. Remember this only if you want to additionally wonder why it matters when she lights up for one puff at the climax’s conclusion. If these are the only developmental beats that attracted actress Amanda Schull, playing a Poor Man’s Naomi Watts-type role, she might wish to reconsider how she selects future projects.
Daria partners with kindly Colt to investigate the disappearance of Maria and Jonah Pritchard, the wife and young son of irritable local farmer Jackson Pritchard. Jackson is played by Milo Ventimiglia, who would have a much better chance of selling sand to camels than selling anyone on his thoroughly unconvincing country accent. I would have added a region as an adjective in front of “accent,” except I’m not sure even Ventimiglia knows who/what he intended to sound like.
Daria assumes she has an open and shut case on her hands with abusive husband/father Jackson as the one and only suspect. What she actually has is a conundrum of Carl Kolchak proportions, as the cause of the crimes involves a cryptozoological component too impossible to believe. Now Daria is mired in a mystery seemingly no one, particularly Jackson, wants her to solve. But leaving the situation to sort itself isn’t an option when a member of Jackson’s family inexplicably reappears, bringing additional entities along with her.
The economics of confining four main players to an isolated farm keeps the setup simple. Meanwhile, the weirdness of the sci-fi/thriller scenario makes the movie unusual enough to remain mildly intriguing. Beyond that, there simply isn’t anything about the film worth describing with more enthusiasm than, “it’s fine.” Modestly ambitious in concept, “Devil’s Gate” is only complacently competent in execution.
Otherwise affable actors are offset by having their personalities funneled into poorly defined stereotypes. Practical creature effects see their impact lessened by fiction alternating between leaving its potential unfulfilled and flat out falling apart from flimsiness. Everyone and everything involved puts on a decent display, yet falls well short of having enough batsh*t crazy energy to qualify as fascinating.
As speculated at the start of this text, creators plant novel seeds for something sharp, smart, and original. Then they apparently run out of time, money, or inspiration to take anything over those tops, settling for standardized suspense instead.
I’ve been giving what feels like a large number of 50/100 scores recently. I’m uncertain if this reflects a general wave of inoffensive mediocrity in current genre movies or my own apathetic shoulder-shrugging toward that mediocrity. In any event, “Devil’s Gate” earns that impartial score simply for being a textbook definition of unremarkably “average.” If not for that, then for being an example of a film fitting best as forgettable fodder for a subscription service stream.
Review Score: 50