Directed by: John Erick Dowdle
Starring: Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O’Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Jacob Vargas, Matt Craven, Joshua Peace
(out of 4)
Devil is such a low-key thriller – spending most of its time in confined spaces and giving up special effects for character interaction – that I experienced a ping of nostalgia for a time when movies didn’t have to come in CGI-overloaded, 3D formats, and cost millions of dollars to produce. To be fair – there are some films doing it these days (Phone Booth, Open Water, Frozen, the upcoming Buried). But more than keeping its settings constrained to small spaces, Devil is also old fashioned – unlike a lot of recent cynical and nihilistic output, the film is sincere in its intentions to be a morality play wrapped up in a horror package. From the opening credits and narration, it doesn’t try to be ambiguous or offer up multiple interpretations of its simple plot; the viewer goes in knowing that the Devil exists, and this is what the Devil does.
Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) is a recovering alcoholic who almost drank himself to death after some asshole killed his family in a hit-and-run, leaving a quick apology on the back of a car wash discount certificate. He’s a cynic in need of a religious experience, which begins shortly when a man jumps off a high officer tower to his death while clutching rosary beads. We learn that the suicide portends a “Devils Meeting”, which is the old wives tale about the Devil gathering a group of the damned together and torturing them before taking their souls. Today, the gathering place is chosen to be a skyscraper elevator, where a temp security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), a sleazy mattress salesman (Geoffrey Arend), a golddigging beauty (Bojana Novakovic), a brooding war veteran (Logan Marshall-Green), and an aggravating old woman (Jenny O’Hara) become unfortunate victims in Satan’s little game. Some other innocent souls will shuffle off their coils as well; the narrator explains that’s what happens if you get in Hell’s way. The skeptic in me can’t help but call bullshit on setups like this – I have seen too many movies suggesting that Lucifer is given free reign to supernaturally kick the rear ends of poor humans while God is out – playing nine holes, I guess. But the movie knows this and gives Bowden that same attitude (“There’s no need for the Devil, humans are bad enough.”), so he is the easiest guy to identify with. As for the damned, well they’re typical jerks, but since they all are harboring nasty secrets (they’re damned, remember) this is forgivable.
Devil makes the correct decision to dial back on the gore and instead exploit the claustrophobia of enclosed spaces. There’s some suspense and decent use of sound, especially when the elevator lights flicker off at key moments (giving the demonic antagonist the opportunity to claim the next victim). It’s interesting to watch the characters turn on each other, and the final moments involving the two remaining victims are pretty good. What we are dealing with plotwise is a variation on the indie thriller Cube, with the addition of Detective Bowden as the skeptical witness. (Also interesting to note: there’s a short film much like Devil called Elevated, which was the debut film of the director of Cube – Vincenzo Natali). Assisting our detective is security guard Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), who is the only one who knows what’s really going on, being the stereotypical Latino who is easily frightened by supernatural occurrences and prays alot. He’s chosen as the film’s moral center, the spiritually street-smart commentator in the same way that movies portray Asian characters as possessing secret knowledge that makes them wise beyond their years. It’s not offensive, just predictable. Speaking of “predictable”, you should know that the story is written by M Night Shyamalan, a guy known for throwing twists into his movies that only work sometimes (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable). You may also know Shyamalan as the modern king of diminishing box office returns (The Last Airbender). I would say, however, that Devil is one of his better writing efforts; that may be related to the fact that he didn’t direct it, but gave that duty to John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine), who understands that a supernatural thriller like this requires faster pacing than a typical Shyamalan film. But Shyamalan’s fascination with folklore and the uncanny is all there. As for the “twist”, well there are two of them, and I actually did not see them coming. Either I was tired that day or I was invested in the film enough that my mind didn’t dedicate itself to trying to solve the puzzles; in any case, I think a more astute viewer would be able to spot them fairly easily.
Also present is M Night’s fascination with redemption and finding peace with oneself, as previously seen in The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. Covering themes of sin, confession, and forgiveness, I’d call the film Christian; it’s certainly quaint, and that’s not a criticism. Devil‘s biggest mistake is that it overplays its hand early on by informing the audience about what’s happening. It would have been better to remove most of the narration, which gives us too much information. (There could have been some room for speculation about what’s really going on in that elevator, but no – it’s Satan.) I would have tried to plant at least a few seeds of doubt before the final revelation, which might have made the paranoid final moments more intense. There’s also the illogical turn at the film’s conclusion – a manipulation of the plot to ensure that Detective Bowden has his epiphany. Without giving away too much, let’s just say that the Devil is stupid for revealing himself before taking the last victim, giving that victim time to escape fate. Satan didn’t seem concerned with giving the other victims a chance, so why this one? The only reason is to tie the movie’s remaining strands into a neat little bow and drive home the film’s moral lessons. With all that said, I still liked the film quite a bit, from its high-rise setting to the interesting camera moves (a beginning credits sequence sports aerial views of the city – upside-down – adding a layer of unreality) to the occasional use of red herrings. Cinema aficionados might recognize some similarities to the movie Lifeboat – no surprise given how big of a fan of Hitchcock Shyamalan is. I’m just glad to see that there’s still life left in the guy, and like some of the characters in Devil, he may just be on his way to redeeming himself.
- Bill Gordon