The Devil's Tongue

The Devil’s Tongue (2023)

“You already know why I’m here,” says a woman in a white wedding dress to an enthroned, horned Satan, in the opening scene of writer/director Julian Gowdy’s debut feature The Devil’s Tongue. “You held up your end of the deal, so now it’s my turn. My only hope is that you – fuck!”

Here, before the devil can claim his due, the woman fluffs her line, and it becomes clear that we have been watching the making of a film-within-a-film – also called The Devil’s Tongue, and shot for no money in the woods by a tiny crew. Unpaid actors Reagan (Summer Binkley) and Steve (Graham Rickerman) have to leave, and it is not clear when they can next volunteer their time together – and so writer/director Julian (played by Gowdy) despairs of ever being able to piece together from these disparate weekend shoots a finished product with any continuity or coherence.  

A recovering addict with a loving girlfriend (Sarah Ward), a loyal filmmaking collaborator (David Sbarge) and a vigilant sponsor (Jon Nelson), Julian longs to be able to quit his office day job and to commit himself wholly to his art, but there is never enough money or outside interest. Then one day Julian’s old buddy Morris (Morris Swed) shows up fresh out of rehab – and already back on the cocaine – claiming to have met there the feckless son (Philip Bushman) of big-time Hollywood producer Harrison Porter (David Snow). A plan starts to take shape in Julian’s head – a ruthless, manipulative, utterly callous plan – which will see the would-be filmmaker finally getting, as he puts it, “a piece of myself out there”, thanks to a crazy killer hook. Yet the distinctive USP of his work will require great sacrifice just to get past his lengthy and unorthodoxly performative pitch.

Given that Gowdy is himself, like the homonymous character he plays, a recovering addict, and that this is his own first film, The Devil’s Tongue is strongly metacinematic – a poioumenon preoccupied with its own making, and flirting, up to a point, with the biographical details of its own maker. Still, a distinction needs to be drawn between these two ultra-low-budget directors: for in showing his protagonist Julian embracing his inner demons, Gowdy is exorcising his own, in an inventive work which cathartically imagines a more destructive version of itself in negative. Assume that no unpaid cast or crew were harmed – let alone falsely imprisoned or indeed tortured – in the making of this film, and that Gowdy does not end up in the same place as Julian, even if both have ultimately got their movie made.

Where the bride at the beginning of The Devil’s Tongue has entered her Faustian pact, and is about to pay a very high price, in her uncompromising pursuit of love, Julian’s obsession is art – and more specifically the art of filmmaking – which, like a true addict, he is compelled to chase at any cost, letting the horrific consequences be damned.

In pursuing the object of his monomaniacal fixation, Julian may lose everything else, and sell his soul – yet if this seems a bleakly dispiriting portrait of the isolation and madness that are at times demanded by creativity, the collaborative process through which this film has itself been conjured provides its own rather more salubrious counterpoint. And much as Julian’s now ex-girlfriend Sarah cannot wait to see what he does next, those who catch this impressive, highly original calling card may feel similarly curious about Gowdy’s own filmmaking future. 

strap: Julian Gowdy’s feature debut is a Mephistophelean metamovie about the addictions and oblations demanded by filmmaking

© Anton Bitel