Devil arrives in theaters associated with M. Night Shyamalan at an inopportune time. Since Signs in 2002, the writer-director-producer’s movies have been sold based on his name to a degree unusual outside of Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese. But while they often make money, his last few movies have not endeared themselves to audiences or critics. So: Devil is a thriller that’s immediately more renowned for its marketing dilemma than its high concept. While it trades on his name (remember, he made The Sixth Sense!), it also evades it (but don’t worry, he didn’t actually write or direct this one!).
The actual filmmaking chores fall to director John Erick Dowdle and screenwriter Brian Nelson, working from an original idea by Shyamalan: five strangers are trapped in an elevator, and one may be the devil. The filmmakers are canny about placing red herrings that effectively balance normal, nameless figures with devilish potential, including a temping security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), a sleazy salesman (Geoffrey Arend), and a pretty rich lady (Bojana Novakovic). It helps that the cast is features familiar character actors, helping viewers to sympathize with them, even share their shifting suspicions.
But the movie doesn’t sustain the simple creepiness of its premise. As the five strangers begin dropping off, the building security team and some cops investigate, so the movie mixes what seems a supernatural-tinged Agatha Christie story with a locked-door mystery. The perspective provided by these investigators seems designed to open the movie up, taking us beyond the confines of the elevator, but it also introduces the screenplay’s hoariest tricks, including Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), one of the security guards. Spooked by what he sees, Ramirez goes on to offer, via a lot of voiceover narration, what he knows about the devil based on tales his grandmother used to tell.
Though Nelson presumably wrote this narration, it evokes Shyamalan, in particular, the awkward format of Lady in the Water, in that it aspires to set some kind of portentous storytelling rules, but actually just explains what will happen. This drains tension, because Ramirez’s dire warnings aren’t based on anyone we’ve met or actions we’ve seen. Worse, the faux traditional devil mythology here is completely arbitrary, an unnecessary semi-meta framework. One of Shyamalan’s great strengths as an engineer of thrillers—again, The Sixth Sense is the best example—is his patience with characters, their gradual changes in self-understanding and self-presentation. Devil starts out with a similar idea, as the too-obviously typed characters might seem to be shifting in unexpected ways. But it’s not long before the movie is undermining that intriguing possibility, throwing obstacles in its own way.
These obstacles pile up quickly, as the film runs only 80 minutes. It’s so busy, cutting between the elevator and the control room and the cops running around the building (there are several details and detours of no narrative consequence and little other interest) and Ramirez’s insistently clumsy forebodings, that it manages to feel much longer. The film might have explored provocative concepts like sin and forgiveness, but the clamor around its potentially effective moments—tensions building, doubts evolving—is too great, so that creepy moments are alternating with a lot of urgent shouting.
Though Devil is too overstuffed to work as a stripped-down thriller, it needn’t be dubbed the death knell for the “Night Chronicles,” the planned three-film series it reportedly kicks off. It’s possible that other filmmakers might take up Shyamalan-ish premises in their own styles—and not borrow from his—holds promise. And the anthology could free Shyamalan to try something outside of his increasingly constricting generic comfort zone, with all that presumed extra time he’ll have. Perhaps future participants will be more adept at making one of his story idea their own.