‘Devil’: Working With Constraints

[20 September 2010]

By Chris Conaton

Devil is the best film that M. Night Shyamalan has been involved with since Signs. That doesn’t mean that it’s a great movie, merely a competent one. This is a thriller that keeps tensions high and keeps viewers guessing despite its simple “whodunit?” setup.

At this point, Devil seems competent precisely because Shyamalan had so little direct involvement. Instead, he came up with the story idea and handed it off to two brothers, Drew Dowdle (executive producer) and John Erick Dowdle (director and co-writer). While Shyamalan retains a production credit and the movie bears his name as the first of three planned “Night Chronicles” entries, Devil is stylistically worlds away from the overdramatic portentousness that marks his recent movies.

The craftier style is immediately visible: a helicopter shot zooms across a river with the water on top of the screen and the sky on the bottom, arriving upside down among the skyscrapers of Philadelphia. A man’s voice repeats a story his grandmother used to tell him when he was little, about the Devil taking human form to torment and kill hellbound souls while they are still on Earth. But the narration, by security guard Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), is close to unnecessary, only giving information that will be revealed during the movie. Considering that the rest of Devil is taut and even economical in its storytelling, this recurring voiceover is more distracting than effective.

Ramirez’s story leads to the plot set-up: five people enter an express elevator bound for a skyscraper’s top floors. When it gets stuck, security guards send the maintenance manager to fix the problem. Predictably, he finds nothing wrong with the machinery. Also predictably, the lights in the elevator start to flicker and go out briefly. Mishaps inside the elevator include an injury and a death. The cops who arrive on the scene are baffled.

Throughout these unfolding events, Devil never tips its hand about which, if any, of the passengers is the Devil. As the police begin to suss out who these people are, the film raises more possibilities instead of eliminating them. Moreover, the express elevator’s construction disallows the chance that someone might shimmy up or down to the nearest floor, because the nearest exit from the shaft is hundreds of feet away.

Such physical constraints frame a limited plotline. At 80 minutes, the film doesn’t have much time for subplots, so potential motivations become part of the mystery. Of the people trying to solve the situation from outside the elevator, only lead detective Bowden (Chris Messina) has even the slightest sort of background (he’s lost his family in a car accident), which, of course, means that background figures in the present plot. Even if this structure is unsurprising, Dowdle finds ways to ratchet up the tension without relying on cheap jump-scares. Devil earns its most frightening moments.

Still, Devil feels less like a movie than a TV episode. This story would have fit in perfectly (and as one of the better episodes) in NBC’s short-lived Fear Itself or Showtime’s Masters of Horror. Audiences paying for tickets may be left wondering “Is that all there is?” Such disappointment has to do with what might have been a story idea that Shyamalan scrawled on a napkin. At the same time, that idea is easily the best thing he’s come up in eight years. That it’s transformed by the Dowdles into a worthy TV show, at least, suggests another direction for his wavering career.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/131192-devil/