'Devil': Looking for Ideas

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.


Director: John Erick Dowdle
Cast: Chris Messina, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Logan Marshall-Green, Bojana Novakovic
Rated: R
Studio: Universal
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-09-17 (General release)

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.