When commencing to read this review, you should first be aware that I am one of the leading M. Night Shyamalan apologists on the interwebs. That being said, even I’m aware that his recent films haven’t been of the same quality of his earlier ones. The more level-headed among us will probably argue that the problem hasn’t been his directing, which is as wonderful as ever, but his writing, which hit rock bottom with The Lady in the Water and hasn’t fully recovered.
So it comes as a mixed blessing that Shyamalan takes a back seat for Devil, a film he’s had on his mind for many years now. The idea of him producing a trilogy of films directed by other people (The Night Chronicles) sounds great, but you have to take into account the fact that film number one, this film, is based on a story of his. Thus, its major flaws are clearly Shyamalan flaws, reminiscent of the mistakes we’ve seen him make before.
Devil has a great premise: five people are trapped in a lift. One of them is the Devil, and intent on harm, but we don’t know which. Brilliant, yeah? If you disagree, then this film probably isn’t for you.
Basically, what we have here is a version of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Niggers/Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None” (depending on which decade of political correctness your edition was published), except instead of a bunch of strangers stranded on an island, they’re stuck in an elevator. This means, of course, that a lot is riding on the performances of those in the lift, and let me say that this bunch of lesser-known actors do their best with the cards they’re dealt.
Here we come to one of the two big problems with Devil: some old-fashioned racial stereotyping. First off, one of the security guards watching the video feed from the elevator (and indeed, narrating the film) is an über-religious Hispanic dude who kisses the crucifix around his neck a lot. Secondly, one of the people in the lift is an African-American who says “Bullshit” a lot – in fact, he’s only a fraction away from that guy in Not Another Teen Movie that exists purely to say, “Damn, that shit is wack!” Seriously.
I have no idea what led either Shyamalan or screenwriter Brian Nelson (who, believe it or not, wrote the brilliant Hard Candy) to take such shortcuts in their characterisations, but it’s disappointing to say the least. To make matters worse, we have the second big flaw in Devil: the narration courtesy of our token Hispanic guy, who seems to be narrating a story on par with the ridiculous tale from The Lady in the Water. His voice intermittently intrudes, telling us something that’s going to happen – and then it does. Quite useless, really.
The good news is that aside from these two quibbles, Devil is decent entertainment indeed. One of the film’s major assets would have to be Chris Messina as Detective Bowden. As the cop trying to save the day, he gets lumped with dialogue that might seem like useless filler in the wrong hands, but somehow manages to make Bowden seem wonderfully incisive and commanding. Messina’s performance really does hold the film together.
Director John Eric Dowdle (of Quarantine fame) also knows what he’s doing. The scenes move at a brisk pace and the performances are wonderfully dynamic. The brilliant Tak Fujimoto is on board as the cinematographer and he manages to make what could be a visually dull film rather exciting.
The end result is an entertaining thriller that one can’t take too seriously. Despite taking a backseat for this project, Shyamalan’s mitts are all over this flick, so if you can’t stand him, then this is best to avoid. If however, like me, you still see worth in his contributions to cinema, then Devil is for you.Rating: