by Mel Valentin
When a major or minor Hollywood studio refuses to screen an upcoming release for the film-reviewing press, it’s a sign, almost always a bad sign, that said studio has little or no faith in the about-to-be-released. When said film has M. Night Shyamalan’s name attached as producer and writer, it’s understandable why the studio would release said film, in this case "Devil," a modestly budgeted supernatural thriller and the first film in a planned “Night Chronicles” trilogy, without the advantage or, more likely, the disadvantage of movie reviews to hinder the all-important opening weekend box-office take. "Devil," however, is by far the best (“best” being a relative term in connection with M. Night Shyamalan) film in five years to emerge from Shyamalan’s imagination-starved mind.Directed by John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine) with an able assist by three-time M. Night collaborator Tak Fujimoto (The Happening, Signs, The Sixth Sense) as cinematographer, Devil opens with an impressive, if visually obvious, motif: an upside-down helicopter shot approaching M. Night’s favorite city, Philadelphia. Given the (mostly) single-location setting, an elevator suspended between floors in a business building, visual inventiveness will be in short supply for the remainder of Devil’s thankfully brief running time. Screenwriter Brian Nelson, working from an M. Night idea, gives the film’s sole Latino character, Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), voiceover duties. Ramirez isn’t a major character (he’s a security guard), but he steps in via intermittent voiceover (for the audience) and exposition via dialogue (for the in-film characters) to conveniently explain the all-important ground rules for Devil.
"The devil, like M. Night, is in the details."
According to Ramirez, a practicing Catholic (and true believer), the devil (big “D” or little “d” is hard to tell) likes to torture his victims up close and personal, hiding in plain sight as one of the victims, even eliminating himself (or herself) to cast suspicion on one of the survivors. This devil is nothing if not petty. Rather than engaging in or directing wanton slaughter on a semi-massive scale (a genocide here, a genocide there), he prefers to pick a handful of victims, victims already doomed to spend eternity in Hell, and torturing them physically, mentally, and emotionally for a few hours before killing them and absconding with their immortal souls to the netherworld, where eternal punishment presumably awaits (them, not him).
The devil’s victims, Sarah Caraway (Bojana Novakovic), a woman visiting her lawyer’s office, Vince McCormick (Geoffrey Arend), a shady mattress salesman, Ben Larson (Bokeem Woodbine), a temp security guard, Tony [last name withheld to avoid spoilers] (Logan Marshall-Green), a mechanic on his way to an interview, and Jane Kowski (Jenny O'Hara), a late-middle-aged woman. Everyone has somewhere to be, someone to visit, but no one reaches his or her intended destination. The elevator stalls on the 20th floor. Ramirez and his security guard boss, Lustig (Matt Craven), try to keep the passengers from panicking while he sends a maintenance man, Dwight (Joe Cobden), to fix the elevator.
Everything, of course, goes awry. Flickering lights give the devil the perfect opportunity to attack one of the passengers. When the lights return, suspicions grow and fester, increasing the potential for panic and violence. In one of his helpful voiceovers, Ramirez mentions that the devil doesn’t like anyone interfering in his plans. A nearby suicide, however, brings Philly’s finest, Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), and his partner, Detective Markowitz (Joshua Peace), initially to investigate the suicide, but then to investigate who or what is behind the strange goings on in the elevator. Like the passengers in the elevator, Bowden has a traumatic past that he’s trying to overcome (he’s five months sober).Nothing that follows comes as a particular surprise (or shouldn’t to anyone paying attention), but Nelson’s screenplay doles out exposition skillfully, if shallowly (we learn little about the characters’ backstories or through their actions), a major plus for a film that times out at 80 minutes (including credits). That 80 minute running time, while perfect for an undemanding Saturday night (as a rental or cable watch), might leave (or left) moviegoers displeased with the minimal supernatural shocks and kicks for their bucks. What "Devil" does have, though, is a sustained mood of dread and, on the flip side, anticipation for whatever the devil has in store for his victims who, we eventually learn, “deserve” their individual fates. "Devil" is nothing if not high-mindedly moralistic, but that’s one of its multiple strengths, strengths that will be hopefully carried over to the next installment in the “Night Chronicles” (presuming it gets made).
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=20719&reviewer=402
originally posted: 02/21/11 22:31:58