An effective locked-in-the-box thriller.
Stories say it begins with a suicide, that the Devil roams the earth and occasionally makes a personal appearance. It wasn’t an accident when five strangers wind up in the same elevator: a temporary security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), a fussy bag lady (Jenny O’Hara), a salesman with high aspirations (Geoffrey Arend), a recent US veteran (Logan Marshall-Green), and a high-class gold digger (Bojana Novakovic). It also wasn’t an accident that a recovering alcoholic named Bowden (Chris Messina) was the detective placed in charge when the elevator stopped and the people inside the car started dying. These things happen for a reason…
Part of planned trilogy called “The Night Chronicles,” writer/director M. Night Shyamalan proposes an idea and hands it off to others while he produces. This first installment, Devil, is a locked-in-the-box thriller (put mixed personalities into a confined space, lock the box, then open it later to see who’s left.) With a tight running time, clever workarounds, and an adequate cast, Devil mostly succeeds. The inclusion of a narrator (surprisingly not played in cameo by M. Night Shyamalan himself) among the cast spewing omens, Catholicism, and bedtime stories dips too often into the cheese to keep things riveting, and that’s where the film fails to believe in itself.
What does work is the way the film invents its own mythology and sticks to those rules. The detective becomes interesting when he easily looks past the obvious to see other possibilities; this is important since he’ll also have to think outside the box to “beat the Devil.” Also effective is the narrator’s mantra-like warnings of how it doesn’t matter what we do because we brought it on ourselves. No one is innocent here, and where that would be cause enough in most films to give little care to anyone about to die, enough humanity comes through to show these characters as flawed people doing the best they can.
If the narrator were less clownish, if the epilogue didn’t drag out the ending, or if some of the throwaway roles were better fleshed out, Devil could have risen to greater heights. In spite of its flaws, it’s still the best thing that M. Night Shyamalan has had his name attached to in years. Is this the beginning of an upward trend in which inevitability replaces the twist ending to give rise to new M. Night successes, or is this merely proof that ideas and not direction are the creator’s bread and butter? Stayed tuned; there’s two more chronicles to go.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)