Tuesday, September 21, 2010


If you pay attention to critical reception, you would think that the career of M. Night Shyamalan is pretty much over. After generally positive reviews for his breakout Sixth Sense and then Unbreakable, each succeeding movie that he has directed has gotten worse and worse reviews, up to and including his latest from earlier this summer, The Last Airbender. While I have not seen his last two movies, I generally enjoy the ones I have seen, seeing movement and ideas lurking behind the obvious plot and structure, thoughtful moments that give me good feelings about Shyamalan as a storyteller.

So when I heard about Devil, I generally liked the concept—that of five people trapped in an elevator and one of them being the devil himself. And then when I heard Shyamalan's name attached to it, I was even more intrigued. For the folks who are completely turned off by his name beig in the credits (And strangely there are a number of people like that), I should make it clear that Shyamalan only serves as a producer and, from what I have gathered elsewhere, the originator of the story idea rather than the director of this movie. The result is a delightful ghost story, the sort of chilling tale that gets told around a campfire on a cold, dark night.

Part of the spooky fun is a voiceover, providing the air of a story being retold. The voiceover script harkens back to legends and repeated tellings of similar stories, placing this iteration in a procession that goes back I time and promises to go forward as well. Fortunately, the voiceover is not continuous and really doesn't give very much of the action away, speaking as it does in generalities about how the devil interacts with humans as sweeping foreshadow of events about to take place. It appears that every now and then the devil gets loose on Earth, his path opened by a suicide, and torments a group of people before he takes them to Hell to suffer eternal damnation and hellfire for their sins on Earth. The most important word being "torment." Five complete strangers end up trapped in an express elevator, which by itself could be an interesting movie, as they learn about each other and learn how to deal with their unhappy situation as well as how to deal with people they probably wouldn't otherwise interact with. But Devil tosses in the supernatural, and an uncomfortable situation becomes untenable when the trapped passengers are psychologically tortured before the devil takes them away.

The point of view character is a police detective investigating the suicide which opened the door for the devil. We are given a little back story for the detective as he tries to figure out how a dead body ended up on a bakery van far away from any building tall enough to have killed a jumper. As he tries to work out that first death, he gets a call about an assault in a nearby building—which is the passengers in the elevator not getting along too well. It turns out that the building security has a camera in the stalled elevator and can see everything taking place within it. They even have speakers whereby they can talk to the passengers; unfortunately, the microphone in the elevator appears to be out, so the passengers can't talk back. The police detective is thus able to watch the events unfold but unable to affect what's going on inside other than by suggestion.

The characters in the elevator could be categorized neatly into tropes, and Devil itself lends itself to that sort of analysis. Much as we probably do when we are forced to deal with people we don't know for short intervals, the movie slots the characters into general stereotypes of class and personality. This elevator contains the jocular salesman, the angry old woman, the well-meaning but slightly dense big guy, the young temptress, and the outsider (who generally is the smartest guy in the roo…elevator). Their first interactions are tentative if only because they are all uncomfortable being thrown together for who knows how long but as events begin to unfold—under our eye and under the eyes of the police and security personnel—suspicion becomes paranoia and terror.

Devil balances a number of storytelling movements for a good part of the movie—at once a locked room mystery and a tale of the supernatural, it allows the view to follow the perfectly rational investigation about why these people are in the building in the first place and how they are dying while there are more and more hints that what is taking place in the elevator is not earthly at all. For while all the movement of the story—the title of the movie for instance, and the voiceover telling its ghostly tale—indicates the supernatural, our point of view forces a rational approach. The police investigation also turns up evidence that this could all just be an exotic murder plot surrounded by a number of coincidences. What the audience perceives, then, is several stories at once with the result of being pulled along in the narrative of each. While the writing is not brilliant, the storytelling is, and the cast and crew should be congratulated on pulling together a suspenseful and creepy ride. Bodies begin to pile up and the police become more and more desperate, a crescendo of suspense that also pulls the audience right along.

If there is a weakness to the film, it is the insistence that everything be tied up in a pretty package. In some ways, the imperative of resolving the mystery (mysteries?) forces a neatness to the conclusion of the movie. And yet the movie takes a single step too far, pushing the taut thriller into a moral coda that really isn't necessary and which, while it doesn't come out of left field plotwise, doesn't really suit the limited character development the movie has space for. I also understand the compulsion for a resolute send-off and would have trouble coming up with something other than what we have myself, but it moves too quickly from the panicked and suspenseful conclusion of the main plot and its overarching consideration for our relationship to our world and each other, to the very personal and ultimately trite. But the rest of the movie is fairly taut, with discoveries and revelations being dosed out at the right times and connections playing out in unexpected ways. Being PG-13, what could have otherwise been a splatter fest ends up what used to be called a thriller and suspense, so the squeamish really need not fear too much.

Devil ends up being a throwback film in many ways, enjoyable and suspenseful, relying on circumstance to scare rather than buckets of ichor. More jaded viewers may find it boring, but there are many reasons to appreciate the story, especially in the build-up and release of tension and the devices used to advance the story (the discussing of which would amount to spoilers). Devil is a movie that should appeal to fans of storytelling and is well worth at least a matinee viewing.

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