Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy screens this week at the Music Box Theatre. For ticketing information, click here.
It is permissible to want, though prepare yourself for some real pitiless pain. Or so Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy will suggest. The film details a rural Texas family purchasing a new home. Its patriarch, a heavy-metal enthusiast and mural artist named Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry), finds himself sacrificing his artistic ambitions for something more commercial. He is, after all, painting butterflies for a bank. It is no coincidence that when Astrid (Shiri Appleby), the family’s matriarch, suggests listening to some lighter music on their way from one home to another, that the family’s metalhead daughter Zooey (Kiara Glascco) snidely suggests Metallica. Selling out, as it were, has its irreconcilable consequences.
Byrne frames much of the action through the lens of Jesse’s disintegrating psyche, where his woeful artistic struggles trickle into his domestic life. He becomes possessed, locking himself in his studio as he composes a disturbing gothic mural in an apparent fugue state, whereby he begins to neglect his essential duties as father and husband. These films, of the “I’m a new parent and terrified so let me make a movie about it” variety, are rarely interesting to me, though Byrne subverts (or rather completely ignores) a lot of the annoying conventions that are associated with it to surprising effect. This is primarily realized by Pruitt Taylor Vince’s performance as Ray, a vagrant roaming the rural background. Having previously lived in the Hellman’s residence and compelled by the same demons agonizing Jesse, Ray targets Zooey.
As vapid as the plotting may become, it’s Byrne’s formalism that goes a long way in elevating The Devil’s Candy. He displays an acute and effecting visual eye, one that implores his viewers to consider the physicality of his performers and the literal space of their surroundings. Whether it’s Jesse’s lithe frame cast against his massive murals or Ray’s swollen hand in relation to a cigarette lighter, Byrne is capable of captivating through these small and accumulative gestures. The casual suggestion is that Byrne is grooming his audience to read each frame as a conflict between humanity and nature, whereby each threat intensifies; it’s crescendo piece involves Zooey literally unraveling herself from a trap set by Ray, all set in the tight confines of a hotel bathroom floor. There’s a genuine sense of terror in the sequence, not just because of the horrors of a child in the grasp of a demon, but because there’s still more to come.