Given how atrociously it has been promoted, one suspects that someone at Universal has it in for John Erick Dowdle, the director of Devil, perhaps the most mis-marketed film of the year. With no press screenings held, critics had to fork out their own cash to see it (never a good start), and the film was ill-advisedly touted as “from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan“, a serious no-no given his recent string of critical busts, culminating in the recent shambles The Last Airbender. Devil ticks a lot of boxes with its B-movie-inspired premise, but a lazy, checklist-style of made-for-TV thriller clichés prevents it from getting under the skin at all.
Based on the idea of the Devil’s Meeting, the film begins with five people entering a lift – disillusioned Army vet Tony (Logan Marshall-Green), sarcastic old lady Jane (Jenny O’Hara), spoiled brat Sarah (Bojana Novakovic), hulking security guard Ben (Bokeem Woodbine), and douchey bed salesman Vince (Geoffrey Arend) – before becoming mysteriously sealed inside. As tensions rise within the confines of the crowded lift, Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) arrives on the scene, desperately trying to calm the group down while emergency services work to open the lift up. However, it soon becomes clear that things are not what they seem; rather, one of the five is, in fact, the Devil, eager to chastise the other four for their sins, while they try to survive and work out who the uncanny one is.
A minimalist premise such as this is certainly sobering amid the studio production-line of second-rate thrillers, and though aware of its limitations – in running at a mere 73 minutes before the credits roll – Devil is a disappointingly bland effort, liberally fielding out genre tropes between uninteresting stock characters (Arend’s Vince is one of the year’s most irritating), and ultimately undoing its own attempts to generate suspense. Even with such a simple concept, Dowdle doesn’t appear confident in it, decorating the picture with an overbaked voiceover, predictable jump scares and, most criminally, making the mistake of spending as much time outside the lift as in it. Essentially, Devil is a clumsy, dumb, and altogether lazy attempt to ape Hitchcock, and for a much more successful effort, you need only wait a few weeks for the excellent Buried.
If there is anything that the film gets right, it is in the art of the enigma; there are no particularly obvious candidates for the Devil (though one character is much less conspicuous than the rest), and the film will keep you guessing up until the big reveal. The problem is that the film cheaply betrays its own rules; from the outset, it is suggested that the Devil is killing off all of the people in the lift, presumably waiting for a one-on-one final showdown with the biggest sinner of all. How insulting it is, then, that this schema is crudely contradicted in the climactic turn, making for a smarmy “gotcha!” moment that derails any good work done prior to it. Who the Devil is, ultimately, isn’t that interesting, and their identity could easily have been interchanged with any of the other characters without incident.
Good moments do abound occasionally; as the numbers dwindle, tension is effectively conveyed – particularly as the final panic-stricken two each race for shards of glass to defend themselves with – and Chris Messina’s performance as the grieving, alcoholic cop deserves better material, yet both meritorious aspects are constantly at-odds with laboured expository dialogue and a cynical satisfaction with by-the-numbers supernatural thriller plotting. There is a distinct feeling that the film would feel tighter had the camera never left the lift, and were better actors cast for admittedly uninspired roles (Novakovic is especially histrionic).
Many will pawn it off on the basis of Shyamalan’s involvement, but this isn’t a touch as bad as anything else he has touched recently; the idea is great, it is slickly produced, and at sub-80 minutes, it is hardly demanding viewing. However, most of its promise is squandered through inept scripting and a failure to indulge a self-aware enthusiasm for its B-movie concept.
Devil is in U.K. cinema’s now