Devil is the best film M. Night Shyamalan didn’t direct. I think I now understand why I haven’t liked any of his movies – he lets himself get in the way of his own good ideas (exempting The Last Airbender, which wasn’t his idea at all). By giving the filmmaking responsibilities to others, his ideas can remain intact, but at the same time, they can also be approached from a different, less self-constraining angle. They might even be improved. For Devil, Shyamalan is credited as the story creator and as one of the producers. The screenwriter is Brian Nelson, recently known for penning the vampire thriller 30 Days of Night and the indie shocker Hard Candy, the latter of which scared the living hell out of me. The director is John Erick Dowdle, who underwhelmed me with Quarantine and is still intriguing me with his as yet unreleased film The Poughkeepsie Tapes, delayed since 2007.
While by no means a great supernatural thriller (as so few are), Devil is surprisingly effective – taut, suspenseful, and brisk, with decent performances and intriguing dialogue to boot. On the one hand, it’s a claustrophobic horror story about things that happen in the dark, and if there’s anything we’ve learned from the good horror movies, it’s that your mind can conceive of things far scarier than what a director reveals on camera. On the other hand, it’s a chilling character study, a peek into the souls of people. Many of them are bad. Others have simply made mistakes and lurking underneath is the capacity for change, which covers everything from facing your demons to forgiving those who have wronged you. It all boils down to a simple decision: You either pay for your sins, or you ignore them. You can probably guess which of the choices is easier. You also probably know that what’s easy isn’t necessarily what’s right.
The film is founded on the premise of a Devil’s Meeting, in which Satan takes on human form and tests evildoers by tormenting them. And so it comes to pass in a Philadelphia high rise that five people enter an elevator, only for the car to stop mysteriously stop in mid ascent; what begins as an inconvenience quickly gives way to suspicion, paranoia, and the occasional loss of light, at which point awful sounds are heard. When the lights come back on … well, I don’t think I should say what we see, for it would ruin the apprehension. Let’s just say that on board are a mattress salesman (Geoffrey Arend), a temp security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), a young woman (Bojana Novakovic), an old woman (Jenny O’Hara), and an ex-soldier turned mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green). In one way or another, all have done things that have hurt other people. And as the ads have repeatedly told us, one of them isn’t who he or she seems.
They all have clashing personality quirks. The salesman is insensitive and never knows when to keep his mouth shut. The guard is uncomfortable in tight spaces. The young woman overreacts. The old woman worries about everything. The mechanic has a short fuse and is always guarded, which is a good indicator of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Who amongst them seems a likely candidate for the Antichrist? Take your pick – they’re all equally capable of bad deeds.
Keeping tabs on them via surveillance camera is Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), who was drawn into the situation when investigating an apparent suicide at the same site. Bowden is a recovering alcoholic and still trying to cope with a recent tragedy. He doesn’t believe in anything greater than himself, and he certainly doesn’t believe in the Devil; it’s a matter of reasoning, of processing the information as he finds it. At his side is the film’s narrator, a security guard named Ramirez (Jacob Vargos). He’s devoutly religious. He completely believes in the Devil, who he’s convinced is responsible for the terror unfolding in the elevator. How else to explain the distorted face that appears in a single frame of the elevator’s surveillance footage? How else to explain the warning signs his mother dictated to him as a child? How else to explain why every attempt to fix the cable system or penetrate the shaft walls have all failed?
If Bowden is a man of no faith, and if he’s in a situation that has no logical explanation, one must deduce that he’s eventually forced to believe in something higher than himself. I should emphasize that I’m not necessarily referring to God. Saying that you believe in something higher than yourself could mean any number of things, and of that, I will say no more. Regardless, Bowden is being tested, just as the people in the elevator are. I leave it to you to discover who passes and who fails. Devil is certainly not groundbreaking, but it’s a perfectly competent horror film – technically sound, nicely performed, frightening, and above all, engaging. In my review of The Last Airbender, I admitted that my nature was to resist the films of M. Night Shyamalan; on the basis of this film, I think he would be wise to let other directors interpret his work from now on. If Dowdle could do it, imagine what someone else could do.