Monday, October 18, 2010

The Movie is in the Details

So, yeah, I watched Devil. Sure, it's based on a story by resident twist-er M. Night Shyamalan, and that alone should have sent me screaming into the hills, as there's a reason I haven't watched a film of his since The Village. His tales to that point had become so much about the oh-so-clever twist that it was actually hurting the stories he was trying to tell. I had two reasons to think that Devil would be better than his latest fare, however. First, while the story is based on his story and he in fact produced the film, he neither wrote the screenplay nor directed the film. The screenplay was instead written by Brian Nelson, whose 30 Days of Night I absolutely loved, and the film was directed by John Dowdle, whose biggest film to date had been 2008's Quarantine. Second, what can I say? I guess I'm a sucker for a locked-door mystery.

Sure, throw your weight around. That'll get you friends
Taking place in modern-day Philadelphia, the story revolved around five strangers who suddenly find themselves trapped in an office building elevator. Simultaneously, Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), a recovering alcoholic who took up the habit after a hit-and-run driver caused the deaths of the members of his family, is investigating a suicide that apparently happened by someone leaping from the same building earlier that morning. That suicide has apparently allowed the Devil to come to Earth, and as people in the elevator start dying in violent and mysterious ways, time is running out and one of these strangers seems to be the Devil taking human form.

Okay, now you're just showing off
Okay, yes, it seems a bit silly, and the film is lacking in some areas. The basis of the story, because it wouldn't be obvious to someone who didn't already know what was happening, is told in an annoying voice over by a security guard (Jacob Vargas) who is the first to suspect the Devil is at work. This is doubly annoying because it's obvious (OBVIOUS) that this is Shyamalan's voice at work, telling us what we need to know to understand what's happening. But I can look past that. I can also overlook the lack of big name talent. Messina is something of an up-and-comer with roles in Julie and Julia and Away We Go leading up to this, his first big-budget starring role (Geoffrey Arend, on the the other hand, shall from now on be referred to as "Mr. Christina Hendricks"). The acting also has no small talent, though I'll get to that later. These quibbles are completely understandable when you place the film into the context of B-grade, which is where the film seemingly WANTS to be.

This is Major Tom to Ground Control...
The acting, as I said before, is surprisingly talented. Of the elevator patrons, only Bokeen Woodbine is probably recognizable to the majority of the movie-going audience. He plays a temp building security guard with acute claustrophobia. It makes him highly agitated and uncivilized. He also has a violent past. Logan Marshall-Green plays a former military mechanic who doesn't like to talk about his military experiences. The least is known about him and he skillfully portrays a mysterious, moderate temper. Bojana Novakovic is a gold-digger who likes to burn through money and pit people against each other. She plays the scared one for most of her scenes, and does it well enough for a relative newcomer. Jenny O'Hara does a good job as a kleptomaniac who is portrayed as a rough-around-the-edges hard-nosed woman who isn't afraid to call anyone out for bull. Mr. Christina Hendricks is a creepy, nervous salesman who also moonlights as a conman. As you can see, none of the people trapped in the elevator are sweethearts. That's why it's a shame that none of them hold a candle of interest to the only important character OUTSIDE the elevator. Messina plays the somber detective on several levels, not only as a detective who wants to get the people out of the elevator safely, but as the mourning husband and father who lost everything important to him one day. There are a few other characters of note, but none that you'll lose sleep over, as it's these six who rightfully garner the most attention.

Yeah, you ain't coming home for supper.
Despite the fact that the film is a PG-13 film, it doesn't feel like it sacrifices anything to get the scares out of the audiences. There is some blood, some bodily trauma, some sudden crashes and burns and other acts of violence, but the film does a great job of limiting what is seen. There's nothing gratuitous about this film's portrayal of death and violence, and does a good job of showing how to scare the audience without gobs of gore like so many recent horror films. In fact, like the very good Crazies, it's the controlled and precise violence we as the audience are allowed to see that makes it so effective.

The film also makes great use of it's confined spaces. The elevator cab, especially, is small and shot as such, and the viewer feels as confined as those poor souls stuck in it. Outside, the world is dark and overcast, no sun shining down on the world. It almost creates the same effect, as though the storm clouds are the closed elevator doors, refusing to part so that we can get or even see out.

"Don't worry, I bet they won't even ask you to be in the sequels"
If there's one final thing wrong with Devil, it's the ending. One unnecessary flashback, one revelation, one slight twist (it wouldn't be a Shyamalan film without one), and we're at the end of a film that in truth plays out like an old episode of Tales from the Crypt, complete with Crypt Keeper to tell us the moral of the tale. That this is supposed to be the first of Shyamalan's Night Chronicles trilogy isn't a saving grace, as the film hardly inspires faith in future incarnations. It's a B-film and seems happy to be that way, and to tell the truth I enjoyed it because it WAS no a film that was no big deal. If there's one thing to say for it, it's that the trailer for Devil doesn't give away the big secret, which one of these passengers on the road to hell is in fact the driver of the vehicle. It was surprisingly good, though not nearly good enough to topple any of the much stronger films that have been released this year. It may be simple. It may boast a c-grade cast. It may have one of the sinking stars of Hollywood's names dragging it down. Despite all these things I find myself recommending it as a cheap flick if you've seen everything else available. Keep your expectations low and you won't be disappointed.


brian said...

Haven't seen it yet but I would imagine a cast of no names would be almost vital to this kind of material. Even Woodbine might be too BIG of an actor. Also, 'The Happening' was pretty much twist free and look how that turned out. One of the most enjoyably terrible movies of the past decade.

Anonymous said...

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