"Devil" is the best film M. Night Shyamalan didn't
direct. I think I now understand why I haven't liked any
of his movies - he lets himself get in the way of his own
good ideas (exempting "The Last Airbender," which wasn't
his idea at all). By giving the filmmaking responsibilities
to others, his ideas can remain intact, but at the same
time, they can also be approached from a different, less
self-constraining angle. They might even be improved. For
"Devil," Shyamalan is credited as the story creator and
as one of the producers. The screenwriter is Brian Nelson,
recently known for penning the vampire thriller "30 Days
of Night" and the indie shocker "Hard Candy," the latter
of which scared the living hell out of me. The director
is John Erick Dowdle, who underwhelmed me with "Quarantine"
and is still intriguing me with his as yet unreleased film
"The Poughkeepsie Tapes," delayed since 2007.***
While by no means a great supernatural thriller (as
so few are), "Devil" is surprisingly effective - taut, suspenseful,
and brisk, with decent performances and intriguing dialogue
to boot. On the one hand, it's a claustrophobic horror story
about things that happen in the dark, and if there's anything
we've learned from the good horror movies, it's that your
mind can conceive of things far scarier than what a director
reveals on camera. On the other hand, it's a chilling character
study, a peek into the souls of people. Many of them are
bad. Others have simply made mistakes and lurking underneath
is the capacity for change, which covers everything from
facing your demons to forgiving those who have wronged you.
It all boils down to a simple decision: You either pay for
your sins, or you ignore them. You can probably guess which
of the choices is easier. You also probably know that what's
easy isn't necessarily what's right.***
The film is founded on the premise of a Devil's Meeting,
in which Satan takes on human form and tests evildoers by
tormenting them. And so it comes to pass in a Philadelphia
high rise that five people enter an elevator, only for the
car to stop mysteriously stop in mid ascent; what begins
as an inconvenience quickly gives way to suspicion, paranoia,
and the occasional loss of light, at which point awful sounds
are heard. When the lights come back on ... well, I don't
think I should say what we see, for it would ruin the apprehension.
Let's just say that on board are a mattress salesman (Geoffrey
Arend), a temp security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), a young
woman (Bojana Novakovic), an old woman (Jenny O'Hara), and
an ex-soldier turned mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green). In
one way or another, all have done things that have hurt
other people. And as the ads have repeatedly told us, one
of them isn't who he or she seems.***
They all have clashing personality quirks. The salesman
is insensitive and never knows when to keep his mouth shut.
The guard is uncomfortable in tight spaces. The young woman
overreacts. The old woman worries about everything. The
mechanic has a short fuse and is always guarded, which is
a good indicator of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Who
amongst them seems a likely candidate for the Antichrist?
Take your pick - they're all equally capable of bad deeds.***
Keeping tabs on them via surveillance camera is Detective
Bowden (Chris Messina), who was drawn into the situation
when investigating an apparent suicide at the same site.
Bowden is a recovering alcoholic and still trying to cope
with a recent tragedy. He doesn't believe in anything greater
than himself, and he certainly doesn't believe in the Devil;
it's a matter of reasoning, of processing the information
as he finds it. At his side is the film's narrator, a security
guard named Ramirez (Jacob Vargos). He's devoutly religious.
He completely believes in the Devil, who he's convinced
is responsible for the terror unfolding in the elevator.
How else to explain the distorted face that appears in a
single frame of the elevator's surveillance footage? How
else to explain the warning signs his mother dictated to
him as a child? How else to explain why every attempt to
fix the cable system or penetrate the shaft walls have all
If Bowden is a man of no faith, and if he's in a situation
that has no logical explanation, one must deduce that he's
eventually forced to believe in something higher than himself.
I should emphasize that I'm not necessarily referring to
God. Saying that you believe in something higher than yourself
could mean any number of things, and of that, I will say
no more. Regardless, Bowden is being tested, just as the
people in the elevator are. I leave it to you to discover
who passes and who fails.