Devil (United States, 2010)

September 19, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Devil Poster

The underlying premise of Devil is the kind of thing Alfred Hitchcock could have used to develop a tightly-wound, pulse-pounding suspense movie. Unfortunately, Hitchcock is dead and the two men shepherding Devil through its production are not nearly as adept at generating tension and conveying claustrophobia. The concept - five people trapped in a stuck elevator and one of them might be a supernatural serial killer - would seem to be a can't-miss proposition. Yet, in part because of poor scripting choices and in part because of an almost complete lack of atmosphere, Devil is at best a cheesy, unsatisfying thriller and, at worst, a waste of time.

It is perhaps unfair to blame M. Night Shyamalan exclusively for the failure of Devil, although, despite not writing or directing (he claims "producer" and "story by" credits), Shyamalan has been strongly associated with this movie. The actual director, John Erick Dowdle, previously made Quarantine, and the screenwriter, Brian Nelson, penned Hard Candy. Still, for better or for worse, Devil has been marketed as being "from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan" (a line in the trailer that reportedly caused widespread laughter), and it will do little to remove the increasingly thick layer of tarnish on his reputation.

The action takes place in a Philadelphia high-rise, where five people are stuck around the 21st floor in an express elevator. They are Tony (Logan Marshall-Green), a mechanic who served in Afghanistan; an ill-tempered old woman (Jenny O'Hara) who complains about everything; an oily salesman (Geoffrey Arend) who uses the elevator stoppage as an opportunity to hawk mattresses; Ben (Bokeem Woodbine), a temporary security guard who's in his first day on the job; and Sara (Bojana Novakovic), an attractive and smartly dressed woman who's an expert manipulator. Working on the outside to free the trapped five are two security guards, Ramirez (Jacob Vargas) and Lustig (Matt Craven), and Philadelphia P.D. detective, Bowden (Chris Messina). They become witnesses, via closed-circuit camera images, to the grizzly goings-on in the elevator every time the lights go out. Ramirez believes one of the prisoners is actually the devil in disguise and, as things transpire, an initially disbelieving Bowden has a change of heart.

The film's worst sin is using Ramirez as a Greek chorus. He has a wealth of knowledge about possessions by the devil and reveals all of this during the course of the movie. The character is a screenwriter's crutch. Whenever the filmmakers want to reveal something about the supernatural goings-on in the elevator, Ramirez makes a pronouncement. He also provides "the way out" that is used to facilitate the deus ex machina ending. Maybe he's actually an angel disguised as a security guard.

The five individuals trapped in the elevator never evolve beyond thinly drawn types acting out parts in a half-assed mystery that feels like warmed-over Agatha Christie. They're too flat to engage the viewer's interest or sympathy. They're the equivalent of serial killer fodder in a Halloween or Friday the 13th movie. Devil is presented as a whodunit with gore, although the blood is carefully rationed to avoid an R rating. Every time the lights go out, someone is either injured or killed, so the question is: which of the five (then four... then three...) is responsible? The screenplay tries too hard to mask the devil's identity, resorting to some particularly transparent instances of misdirection. The twist is sufficient to ensure that the viewer doesn't know for sure what's going on until the end; however, the suspects are so poorly developed that it's difficult to care.

One would expect a movie like this to have a tight, claustrophobic feel but, somehow, the filmmakers miss this opportunity. One aspect of the approach that is effective is when the lights go out during the attacks. For several seconds, we see a black screen and hear the audio. It's unsettling, at least until light returns. Overall, however, the style is disappointing, since there's too little suspense for a production that should be crackling with it. But that's what happens with indifferent directing, lazy screenwriting, plastic characters, and lackluster performances. Given all the problems, one is tempted to believe that the competent parts of the movie (there are a few) occur almost by happenstance. Devil will do little to dispel the growing belief that Shyamalan is a one-trick pony whose horse has keeled over. The laughter during the trailer was sadly prescient; the film is a joke.

Devil (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 1:20
U.S. Release Date: 2010-09-17
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1