In the past, the perpetually underappreciated M. Night Shyamalan has reserved his ire for the critics, as when a monster mauls a movie reviewer in 2006’s The Lady in the Water. But in Devil, which his nascent production company backed and for which he conceived the story, he spews his vitriol at the entire audience. All of you philistines who chided The Happening? You’re all going to Hell…unless you beg forgiveness and own up to your idiocy. After all, Shyamalan is still—remember Signs?—a good Christian!
He is not, however, a good writer. M. Night’s only saving grace has always been his superlatively elegant aesthetic style. Each effort is otherwise hampered, if not hamstrung, by lame dialogue and self-righteous storytelling: The Village is delightful to watch, but only with the sound muted. So, who would want a movie that’s slathered with the Shyamalan brand but whose images lack his graceful touch? To compensate for his absence behind the camera comes John Erick Dowdle, sitting in a director’s chair for the first time since Halloween ‘08’s excellent Quarantine. But that movie, while one of the strongest recent horror films for its riveting camerawork, was essentially a shot-for-shot remake of the Spanish movie [Rec]. Going in, the real mystery about Devil wasn’t anything to do with its plot; it was, how will Dowdle manage with original material?
He does quite well, actually—particularly considering the Shyamalan pedigree. Dowdle delivers an efficient, gripping and zippy, if maybe unmemorable, 80 minutes of mystery. Devil is jarring from the first frame with the opening credits’ unnervingly upside-down tour of the Philadelphia skyline, followed shortly by an eerily winding shot, an unbroken take through an office-building lobby that introduces the main characters. Screenwriter Brian Nelson sets much of Devil in an elevator; it’s a contemporary spin on the Christie-classic locked-room formula (also employed, sort of, in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). An elevator’s worth of real assholes—a Ponzi schemer, a pickpocket, a liar, a craven killer and a thug, all pricks and bitches—are murdered one-by-one when the lights briefly but repeatedly flicker off in their shared, stalled lift. Who’s the killer? Satan himself? A detective (Chris Messina) helplessly watches the bloodletting on security monitors while one of the guards (Jacob Vargas), the film’s Hysterical Latin Catholic, fills his ear with expository mumbo jumbo about how the actual devil might be nearby.
The theology is about as sophisticated as your grandmother’s; more sophisticated is the way the movie grapples with spectatorship, an incidental concern of Quarantine as well. Messina and the security guards watch the carnage unfold on a screen as though they’re watching a movie. As such, they look a lot like us; we’re doing the same thing, just at one extra remove. (We’re watching the watchers watching.) So, when Vargas tells Messina that the devil “never does this in secret. There’s a reason we’re the audience,” he’s not only talking about the characters on screen but those off of it, too. Everyone in the multiplex, the film charges, is as with sin as the rogue’s gallery on the elevator, irredeemable lest they own up to their transgressions. (The thoroughly conservative n’ Catholic Devil is, above all, an ode to personal responsibility.) Look, America, just tell the infamously God-complex-y M. Night Shyamalan that you’re sorry you didn’t get The Happening and he won’t hold it against you anymore. Consider the movie’s kind-hearted ending a promise.