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Devil

September 18, 2010

Devil

The remarkable thing about M. Night Shyamalan’s latest movie is how little it has to do with the man himself. Devil may have had its genesis in an idea of his, but it was written by Brian Nelson and directed by John Erick Dowdle. It manages to escape my worst expectation of a Shyamalan movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s great either.

“A group of people are trapped in an elevator and one of them is the devil”, seems to be the kernel behind this first of The Night Chronicles: a series of supernatural thrillers “from the mind” (if not the pen or the lens) of M. Night Shyamalan. And to some extent, that’s all you need to know. It’s a parlor mystery plus Evil; a film school exercise worked out and turned in for credit. And at a mere eighty minutes it amounts to a delicate — if not particularly intricate — miniature.

Really they aren’t even people in the elevator, though; they’re archetypes. Actual characterization is beyond the scope of this class project. And so we have the short-tempered brawler (Bokeem Woodbine), the conniving confidence woman (Bojana Novakovic), the too-slick businessman (Geoffrey Arend), the old woman (Jenny O’Hara), and the ex-Marine who’s “seen some things” in Afghanistan (Logan Marshall-Green); which war, by the way, really is the new Vietnam as far as this archetype goes. But everyone outside the elevator is an archetype, too. The recovering alcoholic detective tragically minus a family (Chris Messina), the competent yet utterly forgettable partner (Joshua Peace), the calm older security guard (Matt Craven), and the younger religiously-inclined guard (Jacob Vargas). The younger guard also does double-duty as an extraneous narrator to give us a running commentary on how the movie is lining up with its story-template.

Throw all these elements into an editing room and stir. It’s not really any surprise what comes out. There isn’t even a sign of the infamous “twist”, outside of a purported bit of Marine slang. Like good students, Nelson and Dowdle know the little references to place into their end-of-term report that will impress professor Shyamalan. Yes, there are scary turns, upended assumptions, and oblique coincidences that are meant to be unexpected; but there’s nothing half so original as, say, Mr. Glass.

But for all of my complaints about Shyamalan as a writer, he was always at least a solid director and had a decent command of the language of the screen. Dowdle shoots his entire creative load in the opening sequence, featuring an upside-down flyover of the familiar Philadelphia skyline — “Get it?” he screams, “It’s a place we think we know, but where the natural order is reversed!” He’s extremely convinced of how clever he is, and he desperately wants the professor to be too. From there, everything inside the elevator is shot in pore-inspecting close-ups, and the weather turns dark and ominous as the plot ever-so-slightly thickens.

Still, it’s solid B work to take a simple premise to its natural conclusion, and nobody involved seems to have shirked their duties along the way. Given a history including films like Lady in the Water, it could be far worse. If all the Chronicles are similar workhorse productions, maybe people won’t boo the trailer of the next one.

Worth it: there are worse ways to spend an hour and a half. It helps if you don’t mind seeing it coming a mile away.
Bechdel test: fail. There are no women to speak of outside the elevator, and the two inside never really talk to each other.

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