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Entries in Devil [2010] (1)


Devil (2010)


Hoof, Line and Sinker

I saw Devil three days ago and still can’t make up my mind about it.  The last ten minutes are great; no doubt about that.  But what of the seventy leading up to the end?

The movie has a lot to prove, being that it was produced by M. Night Shyamalan.  The first time I saw the trailer was a couple weeks after The Last Airbender opened.  The audience was rapt until his name popped up on the screen as executive producer—prompting everyone to laugh their asses off (amazing how one decade’s selling point can become another’s albatross).  Still, the film’s premise intrigued me, and I thought Devil had one of the best-put-together teasers I’d seen in awhile.

The pitch is simple: Five people get stuck in a high-rise elevator; one of them is Satan.  It’s the perfect short-form Shyamalan story exercise, the kind that could have come from an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Because this is a mass-market film, though, the story can’t just take place in the elevator car.  We meet an alcoholic detective named Bowden (Chris Messina) who’s investigating a suicide in the same building; he teams up with a pair of security guards—one an ultra-religious kid, the other a tired job veteran who wishes his partner would put away the cross pendant and get back to work.  We also meet the doomed handyman and a couple of small-part red herrings.  All of these diversions are meant to open the film up, but I couldn’t have cared less about the fire department trying to locate the proper saw with which to open up a concrete wall; I wanted to be back on the elevator.

That’s only partially true, I guess; I would like to have been back on the elevator with a better group of people.  The performances are mostly great, considering the fact that none of the characters are given names that stick.  Young Woman (Bojana Novakovic), Old Woman (Jenny O’Hara), Mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), Salesman (Geoffrey Arend), and Guard (Bokeem Woodbine) are sufficiently diverse, but they share one thing in common: they become agitated and annoying way too quickly.  I don’t know if screenwriter Brian Nelson was trying to make a statement about tightly wound city folk, or if he just ran up against Devil’s 80-minute (including credits) clock; but the situation goes from door-holding courtesy to The Real World on crank and no sleep in a snap.

The writer may have also run into a ratings wall.  Devil is a PG-13 horror film, a plague I thought had been stomped out six years ago, after the Saw franchise brought ultra-violence back into box-office vogue.  The problem here is that because of the weird cuts and angles on certain shots, it looks like an R-rated version had been shot and then chopped to hell for release.  Every few minutes, the lights go out in the elevator; we hear growling and thrashing noises; the lights come back on, and somebody’s dead.  The kills range from hanging via electrical wire to a neck gouged open with a shard of mirror glass, and it’s hard to get a good look at any of it.  I’m not suggesting that I must see every bloody detail; I just feel like at some point director John Erick Dowdle got together with his makeup effects artist and tasked them with coming up with some cool gore effects—which were later scrapped by the MPAA.

The rating also has a torturous effect on the dialogue.  At one point, Salesman tells one of the other characters to “suck a butt”.  Come on, guys, really?

One last note on bizarre cuts: In the trailer, we see a spooky image of a cast shadow on a glowing orange wall; it’s a guy being electrocuted, but the image is presented in a way that suggests he could also be levitating.  That scene isn’t in the movie, and I’ve gotta call it out as an egregious bait-and-switch.

Anyway, the movie builds toward the climax with the requisite pre-twist flourishes of any M. Night Shyamalan movie.  As the characters on the elevator dwindle in numbers, more characters and motives are unnecessarily dropped into the office building storyline.  For ten minutes, Detective Bowden draws a series of false parallels between two characters; helpless to do anything but watch the chaos as fed through the elevator’s security camera, he scrambles to figure out who’s killing the other passengers.  The big problem here is that the audience has no doubt that it’s the devil, but the movie goes through the motions of setting up a surprise revelation that everyone knows won’t pan out.

Towards the end, the film suffocates under the weight of the tension of its annoying characters and obvious dead ends; but when the devil finally reveals himself, the whole picture takes a deep, refreshing breath and marches confidently towards the end.  I won’t go into spoilers, but there’s a terrific departure in tone that makes everything before it worth the effort.

I have a feeling many people will roll their eyes at the convenience of two particular characters finding themselves in this office building on this day, but the whole point of the film is that the devil enjoys orchestrating evil games—and it must have taken enormous effort to put this all together.  The film also raises some questions about God; not overtly so, but in the subtext of what He’s allowed to happen to this group of people.  It’s the classic “All the World’s a Stage” story, but it ends with an unexpected flourish that I really dug.

Two things keep me from recommending Devil as a theatrical experience.  The first is that you’re likely to share the theatre with a bunch of children.  In a recent diatribe, I scolded parents for taking their kids to see R-rated horror movies, but that same logic applies to PG-13 films, too.  Can anyone reading this honestly look at the Devil trailer and say, “This has ‘family night’ written all over it”?  I went to a 3:40 screening on Saturday and, once again, there were babies in the audience.

The second problem is the film’s narration.  What begins as a cool voiceover story about the Devil visiting our world to torment the damned quickly becomes an every-fifth-scene bit of hand-holding that annoyed the crap out of me.  The fact that the narrator is Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), the cross-kissing security guard, makes matters worse.  When we meet him on screen, he’s a cartoon character who does everything but cry “Dios Mio!” and faint.  Just once, I’d like to see a horror film that finds a happy medium between atheists and believers; this kind of lazy writing gives a bad name to both.

So, yes, I think you should give Devil a chance.  You may even enjoy it more than I did—though that will likely depend on your tolerance for tense, bitchy characters.  I think M. Night Shyamalan may have finally found his calling: not as a filmmaker, but as an idea factory that hungry, young writers and directors can draw from to create new and interesting stories.  Devil isn’t the best foot forward, but it’s a pretty damned good start.