Thursday, September 23, 2010

Review - Devil

Five people are trapped in a lift, and one of them is The Devil. That's the pleasingly simple setup to Devil, a new film burdened by the worrying tagline "From the mind of M Night Shyamalan," but one that thankfully doesn't suffer from the increasingly risible filmmaker's presence in the director's chair. Instead, Night has handed his premise over to screenwriter Brian Nelson and director John Erick Dowdle, who have done a serviceable job with it. In fact, Devil is a good deal more competent than the lack of press screenings – usually a bad omen – might lead you to believe, and I wonder if it's simply the Shyamalan association that has prompted the distributors to hide their product from the critics?

There are certainly worse films out there right now; but before you get the wrong idea, I should say that Devil isn't really all that good either. It suffers from a distinct lack of decent characters, some terrible writing and a frustrating lack of focus, but its effectively creepy moments and the intriguing weirdness of its story is enough to hold the audience's attention. That lack of focus is a problem, though. For a film about people trapped in a confined location, Devil spends an awful lot of time outside the elevator in question, which doesn't do a great deal to help develop the sense of claustrophobia such a film should thrive on. The first character introduced to us is Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), an ex-alcoholic cop still haunted by the death of his wife and son, who is called to the building in question when somebody jumps (or is possibly pushed) to their death from one of the upper floors. Also viewing the elevator from the outside are Lustig and Ramirez (Matt Craven and Jacob Vargas), a pair of security guards monitoring the unfolding situation via a security camera, with the religious Ramirez being increasingly convinced of The Devil's involvement.

Ramirez also provides an intermittent narration, detailing a story his mother used to tell him that conveniently reflects the events of the film. Devil trades in such storytelling shortcuts frequently, dropping lumps of exposition into the script whenever it feels like it, and giving its key players just a single character trait (if they're lucky). Inside the lift there are characters credited as Guard (Bokeem Woodbine), Mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), Young Woman (Bojana Novakovic), Old Woman (Jenny O'Hara) and Salesman (Jeffrey Arend); a couple of them do offer their names at some point, but I can't for the life of me remember them. Is it really a wise idea to give all of your characters outside the lift more personality than the ones inside whose fate should be our chief concern? Devil ends up killing off most of its cast, but it all feels so empty and mechanical, with the viewer not being given a single reason to care as another anonymous soul is unceremoniously dispensed with.

Despite this, Devil is slickly put together and there's a certain compelling quality to it as we wait to see how the next poor victim will meet his end. Dowdle stages a couple of solid sequences even if he is often guilty of telegraphing the next twist well in advance, and there's a nice use of the lift's frequently failing lights, with the pitch-black screen and the sounds of panic providing Devil's most unsettling moments. It doesn't add up to much, however, and as the film progresses it simply gets sillier and sillier, with the identification of The Devil eventually proving to be completely arbitrary and nonsensical, as if the filmmakers had closed their eyes and stuck a pin into the cast list. Devil presents itself as the first of The Night Chronicles, presumably a series of tales conjured up by Shyamalan that he will then let other directors bring to the screen, and hopefully subsequent features will be step up from this watchable but mediocre and forgettable fare. In the end, all that lingers from the experience of watching Devil is the film's one truly startling revelation. You know how dropped toast always lands butter side down? That's the work of Satan apparently. Well, I had been wondering.