Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Devil" Review

The most menacing shadow in “Devil” is that cast by its producer, M. Night Shyamalan. The perceived decline in the quality of his work has eroded public praise into apathy and apathy into contempt over the course of his downhill career. Things have gotten so ugly for the once (briefly) untouchable filmmaker that I wonder how the reaction to “Devil” might have changed had he divorced his name from it completely.

Written by Brian Nelson (“30 Days of Night,” “Hard Candy”) and directed by John Erick Dowdle (“Quarantine”), it stands to reason that M. Night, after pitching the idea and relinquishing creative control, would have receded into the background. The problem, I think, is that Shyamalan’s fingerprint is still so clear on the final product. Psychologically speaking, I suspect many are dismissing it purely by association.

And to be clear, there are perfectly valid reasons to dismiss “Devil,” but Shyamalan isn’t one of them. He did his job; the premise is solid, and the building blocks of the story are, for the most part, rightly placed. Its blemishes, therefore, would be more aptly laid on Nelson and Dowdle’s shoulders. While the work of either is only seldom outright bad, their collaboration is never better than average.

It’s their fault that “Devil” never gets under our skin, and the most obvious explanation is because half the film takes place outside the elevator, where a second storyline and protagonist divide audience attention. No doubt that dynamic existed in Shyamalan’s original outline, but Nelson and especially Dowdle seem to favor it and Police Detective Bowden’s (Chris Messina) attempts to break into the jammed elevator over its five passengers’ attempts to break out.

As a result, the claustrophobia never sets in. The viewer never feels trapped because, narratively, they’re being transported to safety every five minutes. Dowdle also fails to demonize the elevator to the extent it really should be. Instead, he focuses on painting the entire building his antagonist, drawn against dark storm clouds and introduced in an ominous upside-down aerial shot. It’s a noble attempt, but it’s no small feat to conjure dread from a flat piece of reflective modern architecture.

For Nelson’s part, he runs with probably the worst idea of anyone by forcing all the ‘devil’ exposition out of a cringe-worthy (but thankfully short-winded) Catholic maintenance operator (Jacob Vargas), who unconvincingly persuades Bowden to consider the supernatural element at play. The character also narrates.

They may seem like minor gripes, but somehow, the individual misfires of Nelson, Dowdle, and Shyamalan add up to more than the sum of their parts; they comprise a film that is almost entirely unaffecting. “Devil” works, but it works the way an imitation Walkman works, which is to say, not very well. The whole thing has a plastic, perfunctory feel to it.

Still, “Devil” isn’t such a bad little flick. It was made on a $10 million shoestring, runs only eighty minutes, and still delivers on its premise with the benefit of established filmmakers behind it. It’s unclear how quick their production cycle was, but be it time, budgetary, or creative limitations, it’s a shame neither screenwriter nor director shine through. Ultimately, it might as well be a Shyamalan film, though I think even his most pink-faced detractors will agree “Devil” isn’t half as bad as “The Happening.”

Shyamalan’s fall from grace has been almost on the level of a political scandal; people now recognize his name and boo it. I suppose some of that hostility is warranted when you disappoint people as consistently as he has, but I can’t help but wonder how warranted his latest critical lashing has been.

“Devil” is far from a perfect film, but M. Night is the least of its concerns.


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