I went into “Devil” without very much in terms of expectations, but I gotta say to all the doubters out there, this one really stood out. There were a few big turn offs without even hearing a plot. First of all, M. Night Shyamalan. I have a big problem with guys slapping their names on things to boost interest. Quentin Tarentino is great at this. Did you know ‘Cabin Fever’ was a Tarentino production? I’ll bet that’s the only thing you know about it if you’re not a genre fan. Anyway, a movie should stand alone on it’s own merits, not on the popularity of someone tagged to the project. Second issue, PG-13 rating. When I was younger, I thought this was great. It meant no torture , no rape, no gratuitous sex. Nowadays it seems to mean “no imagination, no creative license, no ability to convey an edgy story.” Still, curiousity killed the cat and I picked up the flick. What followed was a very thought provoking and well written story with plenty for everyone.
Hats off to Mr. Shyamalan. Seriously. While the film was crafted into a nice visual experience, the story is what really makes the show worth the price of admission. It moved at a good pace, made you think, threw some twists at you (although nothing like the 180’s Shyamalan is known for) and really hits you as the credits are rolling. I’m not talking about the character backstories, however colorful they were. What I enjoyed was the concept that the devil is with us in our everyday lives, that he is as much intertwined in life as in death. I will say that there is some heavily religious dialogue, but I don’t think this is a religiously charged movie. It could easily be, but I don’t know what Shyamalan’s intentions were so I won’t speak for the man. What I do know is that over the course of a little under 80 minutes we follow the not so coincidentally entangled lives of 5 people stuck in a elevator and the detective and security guards trying to save them. We get a feel for the characters, hear their stories and learn a little about ourselves along the way. A well paced plot keeps us involved mentally and a decent volume of scares keeps our eyes open. Note to those yet to see the movie: Make sure to keep your eyes open; blink and you’ll miss more than you think.
After all that praise for the writer (which I do so love to give when it is due), I must also commend the guys that make it happen visually. The director shows his storytelling prowess by engaging us at every turn and in every scene. I was a little worried when the characters got stuck in the elevator that this would turn into one of those claustrophobic, one of us is the killer sort of movies. At it’s most basic, this is true, and this is what we see. But the way John Dowdle, the director, seamlessly switched between points of view, characters and emotions made the film much deeper than that. While I was watching, I started to get curious about the timing being employed from scene to scene. When you look back on the movie, what you remember best are the scenes in the elevator and the narrator’s story. In reality, our vantage point is not in the elevator for more than about 60 seconds at a time. The “outside world” scenes are used so purposefully to build the tension in the elevator that you don’t even notice you spend 85% of the movie away from the action. Beyond simple conveying of the story, Dowdle did present us with a multitude of interesting camera angles and really made the kill scenes work with the intermittent lighting and “flashbacks.” I was very impressed to see a director focus on showing us the story first, and impressing us visually second. This has to be one of the more balanced directorial performances I have seen in a while, and I will be waiting anxiously for Dowdle’s next shot.
I’ve said before that I really like to take something out of every movie I see. Usually I say that in reference to a bad movie, but this one did have one element that I found very unique and interesting. There is a narrator who gives us the background and the real plot of the story, much like in “No Country for Old Men.” This narrator is a character, but a minor one. He is in quite a few scenes and has a fair amount of lines, but usually you expect a story to be told from the perspective of one of the principle players. Here, we are told by an observer who is in no real danger and has no real connection to the horrific events the main characters are entreched in. This works on a number of levels, primarily giving us a balanced view of the action. Secondarily, this fits with the story, which you’ll have to trust me on. We get a lot of insight into the devil, how and why he operates. The fact that the story is coming from a bystander to the central action just makes sense. Sorry to be cryptic, but this really is all I can give you.
Characterization is key in this movie, so I want to touch on it very breifly. First we have the 5 central players, the ones stuck in the elevator. Through a little snooping by the detective, we find that each is a sinner in their own way. One is a con man, another a violent criminal, a liar, a theif and a guy who just made a bad decision. Morality comes into this one big time, and I’m sure this could be debated to no end, but what I get is that if you are bad, you are going to die. Being bad doesn’t necessarily mean doing bad things, but more the intentions behind it. I really have no intentions of preaching or spoiling anything, but I do want to give everybody a little food for thought while they’re sitting on their couch in the dark.
The elevator device is my only question about the whole movie. I’m just not sure why the picked the elevator as a central location, a plot device and the entire marketing campaign. I get that it is claustrophobic. I like that it takes technology out of the equation. It builds dread. Unfortunately, the only way things happen in the cramped elevator is by cutting the lights and having something bad happen. I will admit, I couldn’t wait for the lights to come back every time to see what sort of carnage had occured. All the deaths were great and shocking, but I wish they were a little more… believable? Sure, a supernatural being is offing the occupants, but unfortunately it felt forced that the only action we saw with the lights on was human emotion vs human emotion. The good stuff, the killing, gore and story changing elements, came under the cover of darkness, only to be suddenly revealed to the audience in the movie and at the movie theatre. In conclusion to that note, the elevator thing worked, I just don’t think it should have been made to seem so important.
For all you gorehounds out there, don’t fret, you have not been forgotten. We get some cool deaths you can only associate with elevators and suicide (remember, no spoilers here), a stabbing, lots of creative uses for a broken mirror, bites and a head twisted around. The coolest images are the ones that turn out to not even be real, with scenes of carnage in the elevator that flash before the audience. A strong showing, especially considering this gem was PG-13. Didn’t know you could get away with all that.
If I was Roger Ebert, I’d give this one two thumbs up. We get a finely crafted story that is conveyed in a very strong way. We can really get into the action but also sit back and enjoy a good spookfest. Throughout the film and as the credits roll, you are forced to evaluate your own beliefs about evil, the devil and coincidence (or are they all just the same thing?). I’ve always used this as my gauge for how good a horror movie is: Is it still in the forefront of your mind as you’re going to sleep tonight? What about tomorrow? Usually this means, am I still scared something from the movie is going to come scare the crap out of me. I think it applies here as well, but in a different way. I’m still thinking about good and evil and the difference between the two. Sure, I went to bed without even a fleeting glance to make sure my closet door was closed, but the next morning I woke up pondering the same age old question. While this wasn’t a particularly scary movie, it definitely hits you where it counts.