Thursday, September 16, 2010

M. Night Shyamalan's Devil: A Review

"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."

Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects (1995)

Spoiler free! Drink up!

Devil Poster
Hey, this is actually pretty cool!

The trailer for Devil pitches an Idea with a Twist: five strangers trapped in an elevator and one of them is the Devil, Old Nick the Prince of Darkness himself. It's a simple but effective sell for a minimalistic supernatural thriller and I imagine that many people, like me, were intrigued by it. I've read that in the US, audiences were just as suitably drawn into the premise - at least until "from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan" flashed on the screen and everybody immediately groan or laugh in reaction. It's indicative of how far Mr Shyamalan had fallen since Sixth Sense more than a decade ago when he was compared favourably to Hitchcock, Spielberg and Kubrick. Nowadays, such comparisons are mostly made by himself.

Devil is the first of the Night Chronicles, a series of films written - but not directed - by the guy and it seems to be a return to the small-scale thrillers with a tight cast he was initially known and loved for back in the day. The screenplay's written by Brian Nelson and it was directed by the Dowdle brothers, which made me wonder: which part of the film actually came "from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan"? Anyhow, I'm just really glad he's nowhere near a pen in this because writing is really not his strong suit. The story which M. Night allegedly thought up for Devil is heavily inspired - consciously or not - by a certain Agatha Christie novel which I will not name here because doing so will pretty much spoil this movie outright. Heck, considering the film's premise, the mere mention of Agatha Christie's name could have been enough to spoil it for me personally since I'm pretty cognizant of the Dame of Mystery's best works.

So was Devil a good film? Not frightfully so but I certainly liked it. Did it vindicate M. Night and re-establish him as a creative force to be reckoned with in Hollywood? No effing way. Personally, I don't think he deserves any credit since his biggest contribution to the film was thought up by a British crime writer first in the 1930's. I'd go further and say that this film will probably perform better if his name wasn't attached to it in the first place.

Devil's pedigree is a thriller first and foremost, with the horror elements taking a leisurely backseat sipping a drink coolly and watching you bemusedly with white-less eyes. Jump-scares are few in between and are incorporated rather subtly, if that makes any sense. The film prefers to present you with ideas, situations and images to you in a rather forward manner and let them slowly sink into your mind and unsettle your thoughts; giving you that horrible gnawing urge to look behind. The "face" in the security footage was one. The upside down aerial shot of the city of Philadelphia was another. I can always appreciate a horror film which knows the difference between a shock, a scare and an effective atmosphere of creep.

The cast is comprised of a bunch of familiar unknowns that you are sure you must have seen before but can't remember where. The way the five strangers act in the elevator made me think that the director must have told each and every one of them that they are really the Great Deceiver himself (and some of them certainly telegraphed that stronger than others). I gave up trying to find the devil in plain sight after a while because I realise that this isn't really constructed as a mystery with valid clues leading to a natural conclusion. Turn off your brain and just enjoy the ride for this one. Even though it's a movie that appears to demand you to think, it doesn't really.

The stakes are pretty high what with gruesome deaths and eternal damnation being a distinct possibility for the people trapped in that elevator, and the confined space and forced proximity certainly magnified the tension to a rather claustrophobic degree of desperation. I suppose M. Night did come up with this so I guess I must award him credits for it. What I don't appreciate is his tired brand of "everything happens for a reason" spirituality hokum and I find it more contrived in this case compared to even Signs (another M. Night movie) because of how tangential and irrelevant it is to the main story - but I suppose Devil's paltry 80-minute running time (with many of those minutes consisting of a completely black screen with desperate cries and violent noises, mind you) desperately needed padding. There's only so much you can do with five random people in little box after all, even if one of them is Beelzebub. Still, the movie didn't feel like it was too short and I was surprised when I emerged from the theatre to find out that little more than an hour had passed. Boy, I can't wait to see Ryan Reynolds in Buried; which is just one guy with a cell phone in an even smaller box.

I expected to get hit repeated by a quick succession of left hooks when I sat down for Devil but what I did not expect was to be actually surprised by any of them. There was one particularly audacious death scene which took my breath away for a moment ("Damn," to quote the Devil and I'm inclined to agree) and that rarely happens to me nowadays considering how overexposed I am to thrillers which think that the more peripeteia they can cram into themselves, the better they would become.

The events in Devil is framed by a story-within-a-story; an ersatz South American folktale called "The Devil's Meeting" which described in surgical detail what is happening and what it takes to beat the Fallen One - and all of it is provided in expo-speak by a Catholic Latin security guard. S'not a good idea if you ask me. One of the most important assets of a supernatural thriller is the element of the unknown, and having everything laid bare in such a ham-fisted way would definitely reduce the level of suspense. I do not need to say that such a narrative device also reminded me of another M. Night film I do not want to remember: Lady in the Water. Also the final scene was written with too much schmaltz and its banality was compounded by the actors acting it out through the phone line, leaving me feeling oddly unsatisfied as the credits started rolling - almost abruptly. It's a shame because for the most part, the film proved to be pretty solid.

All in all, Devil succeeded in what it set out to be - nothing more that that. The second film in the Night Chronicles is called Twelve Strangers Reincarnate and it's about a jury discussing a case dealing with the supernatural. M. Night may not be a very good director and everyone agrees that he writes atrociously, but the man certainly knows how to sell a good idea.

P.S. Highlight within brackets for the name of that Agatha Christie novel I referenced: [Ten Little Niggers (1939). It was retitled And Then There Were None, for obvious reasons]

Supernaturally thrilled,
k0k s3n w4i


février said...

TOTALLY SPOILERED. "Damn," to quote the Devil - now when he swears that after a certain death i'm gonna know who it is =d

Anonymous said...

is it worth the price of a ticket or should i catch it on dvd?

k0k s3n w4i said...

beve: gah, can't you just trust me a little bit? the devil didn't swear after that scene - i'm quoting him from another scene. in fact, the tone and context in which the word was uttered was completely different -.-

Anonymous: definitely go for dvd. mostly because of its short run-time and unambitious scope.

Mick C Malkemus said...

Well, I rather like M. Night's style myself, and am something of a 'fan' (I hate that word and concept), it's always distinctive and artistic. While the man's best films are probably ahead, I think he does alright. Still making movies, which is a hell of lot more than... sorry... many critics can do. Ever try to make a flick? It's not an easy task by any means. I'll grant you that Signs was ridiculous, in that I've never met people in the sticks that didn't have guns: just baseball bats? And naked aliens without technology? nevertheless, the film was alright.

k0k s3n w4i said...

Mick C Malkemus: no need to apologise. i am not a professional critic. i'm just some guy with a blog who payed good money and spent precious time to see a lot of mr shyamalan's films. and when my investment brings me the opposite of entertainment and makes me feel more bored/more annoyed/angrier than before i see the film, i think i have bought the right to shit on it.