Mar 7, 2011

[Movies] Devil (2010)

When M. Night Shyamalan hit it big with The Sixth Sense, the geek community was definitely surprised by this creative newcomer. In that one movie, he was able to demonstrate a refreshing take of storytelling in terms of both his writing and his artistic sense when it came to directing.

But over the years, the geek community, and perhaps film critics at large, have come to associate his name with the hackneyed twist gimmick and increasingly poor decisions in terms of how he puts movies together. At the same time, he's also granted himself more and more screen time as an actor in roles that tend to be more and more essential to the overall plot, again a strange decision at times. The problems coincidentally (?) started when he started producing his own movies, giving him (perhaps) way more control over each project than ever. Oh well.

So when they announced a movie that had his name on it but NOT as the director, my curiosity was piqued. Perhaps giving him less to do will mean a more meaningful story? Maybe another director will stand a better chance of capturing the essence of his writing and bring it to the fore in a manner that rakes in millions of dollars?

Or you get this movie instead.

Devil (or sometimes The Night Chronicles: Devil) is a 2010 supernatural thriller written and produced by M. Night Shyamalan but directed by John Erick Dowdle, who last directed the movie Quarantine, which was an adaptation of a Spanish movie.

The movie focuses on five individuals who find themselves trapped in an elevator together due to unexpected circumstances. You don't even need to know who they are as individuals since they're just placeholders for pretty much anyone who might get stuck in there. In the build-up to getting these folks all in the elevator car, we are first subjected to a narration by security guard Ramirez Jacob Vargas) where he describes an old story about how the Devil sometimes takes human form in order to personally torment sinners meant to go to Hell. In fact, this little parable of sorts is essentially the story of the movie. Keen viewers would be taking notes at this point. Anyway, once they're in there, they start mysteriously dying one by one whenever the lights go out, thus implying that someone in the elevator is killing the others.

In the world outside, we get Detective Bowden (Chris Messina who was also in Julie & Julia), who is a recovering alcoholic and a widower who lost his wife and son five years ago. He's initially dispatched to investigate an unusual suicide that is traced back to the same building with the elevator problems. When they find they are cannot get the elevator working right away and can only watch but not hear the trapped passengers on CCTV, the natural conclusion is that the Devil is among them and thus the story unfolds.

MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY 27:  Director M. Night...Image by Getty Images via @daylifeThe premise certainly had all the trappings of potentially good psychological thriller. It could have played out like a locked room mystery for those familiar with the concept, but instead we had to get the supernatural card. While we're initially left quite literally in the dark in terms of what's killing them, the handy explanation by the security guard Ramirez, who is not just a narrator but an active character in the story, kind of gives the whole thing away. Thus you don't watch to find out the explanation of the strange events in the elevator. Instead you watch in order to see how they fulfill the explanation dredged from pseudo-Hispanic-Catholic lore.

We don't really have much to go with in terms of the characters themselves. While the initial stress was to emphasize how we routinely get into cramped spaces with total strangers, without any emotional hooks we as viewers are unable to relate to the characters. By the time we start to learn more about them, a lot of death has been going on or at the very least grievous injury.

The movie has odd slow points in terms of pacing when we keep cutting back to either slow attempts to repair the elevator, the investigation of the suicide or having Ramirez ramble in the security guard office. Yes, I think Ramirez ended up being the lead character since he gets the most detailed dialog, he explains what's going on for everyone and in the end he helps determine how things get resolved. If the Devil is in the elevator, does that make Ramirez the passive observer representing God? I'll leave that debate for idle theologians with little better to do.

The ending explanation of events and the "roles" each of the major players were meant to represent within Ramirez's childhood story were a bit of a stretch when you really put some thought into things. And the ultimate revelation in terms of who the Devil supposedly once in the elevator was even worse and felt cheap and underhanded. One would wish that either the story totally embraced the supernatural or kept things realistic and not just a odd blending of both.

The lack of true focus didn't given the director much to work worth. Either that or he could come up with a good idea to really push the thrill factor here. Instead we had to resort to the power outages and then the shock of what state of affairs would be revealed when the lights came back. While that may work once, having it done over and over again was a bit of a cheap shot that didn't really get the desired cumulative effect on the viewer. Overall it's just a decent movie but nothing truly landmark or groundbreaking.

Oddly enough though, I kind of wished that M.Night had portrayed one of the passengers who get killed first. That would have been fun.

Devil does show promise that we can still have Shyamalan write screenplays, just not direct them (or at least not do both). It gets 3 silly ways for the trapped passengers to die out of a possible 5.


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