Screen Rant’s Kofi Outlaw Reviews Devil

If you’ve been in movie theaters the past few months, then you surely know the reaction people have had while viewing the trailer for Devil: they sit quietly intrigued up until the tagline “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan” pops up on the screen. That’s when the laughs and/or boos begin.

However, it should be remembered that Shyamalan’s involvement with Devil is only that he wrote the story for the film and helped guide it along as the first chapter in his unfolding trilogy, The Night Chronicles. And let me tell you: having Shyamalan at a distance makes all the difference in the world. Devil may not be the greatest ghost story ever told, but it’s far more enjoyable than you might be expecting.

The premise is classic Shyamalan: On stormy day in Philadelphia, five strangers enter a high-rise office building downtown (for various reasons) and happen to get on the same elevator. Said elevator gets stuck, and while the building’s staff and some cops try to get the stranded passengers out of the elevator car, the passengers themselves begin to experience strange and deadly occurrences that set them against one another.

Now, people look at that simple premise – set in a single environment no less – and in their minds the odds of Devil having enough creative juice to sustain itself for 80 minutes start to fall fast. However, I am here to say that this is something of a misconception (one I was guilty of myself): Devil plays it smart by making efficient use of time, perspective and most of all story, in order to pull off in commendable fashion would could have been a total disaster. In true Shyamalan tradition there are some twists thrown into the mix for good measure – some you will totally see coming, and others you may not.

First let’s talk pacing. Considering the time it takes to set things up and close things off, the actual screen time spent in the elevator clocks in at around 50 – 60 minutes. The events play out in real-time, which works to the film’s benefit because it keeps things tense and immediate, and allows the actors involved to channel their performances with high-octane intensity, since their characters are naturally going to be caught up in the frightful moment. The film is also smart about how it actually uses the “single-setting” format, which is actually a misleading label. Screen time is really split between the elevator and the happenings going on outside of the elevator, amongst the security guards and cops working to save the trapped passengers.

In fact, the actual bulk of the film’s actual storyline has to do with what’s going on outside the elevator, with elevator itself serving as the requisite catalyst.  Screenwriter Brian Nelson (30 Days of Night, Hard Candy) is the one who filled in the details of M. Night’s story, and he wisely keeps the dialogue between the passengers inside the box snap-crackling, while keeping us engaged with movement and physical action carried out by the players on the outside. This tight management of time and space keeps us intently focused (looking for that hint that will unlock the mystery), but also keeps us from getting too bogged down or bored.

Perspective was also handled wisely. Director John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine) switches between the characters inside the box and outside the box with enough frequency that we’re kept alert, interested and on our toes. When inside the elevator Dowdle uses smart camera angles, slowly panning round from the center of the box, capturing each passenger alone in frame for a moment, letting the actors’ performances hint at what they’re hiding, or what we should be suspicious of. The elevator feels like an enclosed and inescapable killing floor, and that only adds to the tension. Lighting is also used smartly – after all, it’s hard to guess who a murderer is when the killer only strikes in the dark; the use of sound in those “dark moments” is also employed to good effect. Bottom line: an elevator murder mystery is a premise that could easily fall off the rails, but filmmakers manage to keep the train on track the whole way to station.

The actors are for the most part “Seen them somewhere” faces who you might not recognize by name.  Bokeem Woodbine (Black Dynamite), Logan Marshall-Green (Dark Blue), Jenny O’Hara (Mystic River), Bojana Novakovic (Edge of Darkness) and Geoffrey Arend (500 Days of Summer) portray the five passengers trapped in the elevator, and they all play pretty well off one another as an ensemble. It also helps that each of the five actors is talented; every time you think you’ve guessed which one might be the one, another actor will give you reason to reconsider. They are good about keeping up the intense feeling of five people scared as hell (no pun), but not quite scared out of their wits. You’ll have to see the film to truly get what I mean.

The players at work outside the elevator are also familiar faces with names you may not be able to place. Jacob Vargas (Traffic, Death Race) is great as the one security guard who is devoutly religious. It’s Vargas’ job to deliver all the hokey supernatural/religious exposition that is required by the story, and the actor wisely treats his role with enough tongue-in-cheek to steer us through those hokey bits with laughs instead of groans. Matt Craven (Public Enemies) plays the straight man to Vargas’ funnyman – a second security guard who thinks his partner’s religious warnings are a load of crap and isn’t afraid to tell him so. Chris Messina (Greenberg, Julie & Julia) plays Detective Bowden, the police detective who is called down to the scene and soon finds himself waist-deep in something he never expected.

I said that the story is also an aspect of Devil that was handled wisely, and that’s true. It’s hard to explain without dropping Spoilers, but I will say this: there is a story with a definite arch and point at work here, and it goes beyond what the initial “whodunit” premise suggests.

What Shyamalan has crafted feels more like his Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs days, rather than the frowned-upon latter half of his work portfolio. Devil reminds me of a time when the M. Night just wanted to tell entertaining stories that bent genre conventions, rather than stories that served as thin veils for his preachy or egotistical sermons.

Partnering with other talented filmmakers and writers clearly takes some of the pressure off and allows Shyamalan the space and freedom to simply do what he does best: tell clever and moving stories that chill, thrill and keep us guessing, and while it’s not the greatest movie ever, Devil certainly accomplishes those things.

Watch the trailer to help you make your decision on whether to see Devil:

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