There will come a time when The Special Shelf is devoted to something fun and frothy and sweet. But this is not that time. This month, we’re taking a tense and destabilizing mosey down Devil’s Path, a new film from Matthew Montgomery that is not afraid to get really weird with it.

 

Noah (cowriter Stephen Twokardus) seems out of his depth at the cruising park. There’s not a sign that says “cruising park” or anything. But there are no women or children to be found, and the park ranger feels like he could be the porn ‘park ranger,’ with just a bit of notice. The vibe is very severe, with hookups and power-hikers in abundance and not much appreciation of the ravishing scenery (and intimidating trails).

So our Noah is jittery and not at his most charming when he accidentally meets with Patrick (JD Scalzo). Patrick is very desire-focused, and his interactions with Noah move through several phases of modern gay modes of conversation before coalescing into ‘gotta go sorry bye’ disengagement.

But then Noah is attacked and injured. And then two intimidating men in grey are in pursuit, forcing our two main subjects into flight. For them the layout of the terrain is intricate and difficult. Against them are Noah’s wounds from the attack and Patrick’s asthma. And those two men in grey are always nearby, part of a relentless sound mix that, along with Ceiri Torjussen’s effective score, ramps up the tension.

Much of the film feels like heightened takes on the various stages of negotiating a relationship: blending personalities, establishing boundaries, deciding what traits and characteristics you can or can’t deal with. There’s a very perceptive guide to the hard work of building emotional bonds lurking just beneath the running and bonding and yelling bullet points of the chase narrative.

But there are also some moments that threaten to sink the whole effort entirely—one a moment of unexpected violence that serves no purpose other than to make the viewer irrationally angry, the other an act of physical sabotage that makes no sense and serves as the only badly-written sequence in the film.

 

Before the film is over, we go through a lot of twists and turns, both literally and figuratively. And honestly, they don’t all work. There are interesting points made about metabolizing trauma, the horror of self-loathing and how it can bring down even the strongest personal foundations, and how awful gay men can be to one another when desire becomes a factor.

Montgomery deserves a lot of respect for finding ways to address all this in a well-paced suspense thriller. But there’s a lot to unpack about queer shame and how it’s used within the mystery framework, and a lot of people could end up being pissed off by some of Devil’s Path’s choices. Some of its psychological notes feel reductive, and some of its perceptive-but-exaggerated criticisms of gay interaction could trip up the “what will the heterosexuals think of this conversation” iteration of queer respectability politics.

The highest compliment that I can pay Devil’s Path is that it commits fully to its narrative, veering from sexy primal scenario to kinetic chase thriller to V.C. Andrews virtual sleazefest to deeply tragic portrait of the fallout that lots of suspense and horror films never even think to explore. It’s a messy film, but one that sticks in the back of the brain and lingers there.

Devil’s Path is available for rental or purchase on Amazon Prime.

Click here for more reviews from The Special Shelf!