REVIEW: Producer-Writer Shyamalan's Devil Short on Fun, Fright
If the devil is in the details, Devil could use fewer of them. Writer-producer M. Night Shyamalan's planned series of spooky, seemingly family-friendly "Night Chronicles" begins with the world's very first claustrophobic-whodonit-recovering alcoholic-boogie man-slasher-Christian morality tale. Devil packs a lot of business into 80 brisk minutes but is shockingly short on fun or fright. What should be a simple, fool-proof setup for a chiller of confinement -- five strangers get stuck on a broken elevator and mysteriously start dropping dead -- gets overwhelmed by enough incident and absurdity to make a Goosebumps fan roll her eyes.
Pillow-lipped Chris Messina takes a break from playing jerky, self-satisfied husbands (Greenberg, Julie and Julia) to play the film's straight man, Detective Bowden, a grieving, self-medicating widower who's started to turn the corner. He goes from breakfast with his A.A. sponsor to a grisly, if bizarre, crime scene, where a body has fallen from an office high rise and miraculously bounced onto a delivery truck across the street. This is really, really bad news because...well...because the film tells us it is. According to an as-yet unidentified narrator's superstitious Catholic mother, "Suicide paves the way for the devil's arrival." And so it begins.
Five passengers board an elevator car without fanfare, then find themselves suspended high above the ground for an uncomfortably long time. The video intercom works only one-way -- they hear the control room but can't be heard -- and muzak blasts on and off along with the electricity. Impatience sets in almost immediately. A smug, shifty-eyed salesman (Geoffrey Arend) wears out his welcome early, clashing with a nervous temp security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), whom director John Erick Dowdle ogles at super-close, nostril-flaring range. A paranoid older woman (Jenny O'Hara) threatens her fellow passengers with mace, a moody mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green) eyeballs the hyperventilating temp, and an attractive young woman (Bojana Novakovic) misreads an inexplicable act of violence as sexual assault. Each time the lights go out a swooshy, airborne demon-screech takes over the soundtrack, and when visibility is restored, somebody new has a case of the bleeds. Jugulars are sliced, necks cracked and heads hung, yet because of the blackouts neither Detective Bowden nor security monitor watchers Lustig (Matt Craven) and Ramirez (Jacob Vargas) can discern who's doing what to whom.
The abovementioned are already too many characters for a story that should embrace reduction, but there are more: a doomed elevator mechanic, Bowden's mustachioed partner, Bowden's blink-and-you'll-miss-her love interest, employers, spouses, firemen, office extras. Shyamalan and proficient director Dowdle garnish the central, compelling drama of confinement (which, from Hitchcock's Lifeboat to the upcoming Ryan Reynolds-in-a-coffin thriller Buried, is truly terrifying) with limp, tension-killing sprigs of Die Hard, Speed, and Clue (is it the ex-Marine in the elevator with the switchblade, or the devil in the girl with the glass shard?). Outside of Arend, who plays his corporate prick with perhaps too much relish, none of the performers seem to be enjoying themselves, and instead take all this foolishness at face value. Yet again, self-seriousness serves as a damning common thread among Shyamalan productions.
Eventually we learn that our five seemingly random passengers were in fact supernaturally predestined for this hell-ride, which gives the whole gory murder aspect of things a dubious, disingenuous moral bent, Dexter-style. "They made the choices that brought them here," says cross-clutching security guard Ramirez, who turns out to be our narrator and conscience. His cockamamie theories about the devil's mysterious ways all turn out to be accurate, setting up a deflating, joyless showdown between Old Testament wrath and Christian forgiveness. "He never does this in secret," he tells Bowden. "There's a reason we're the audience." Too bad the actual audience is given no good reason for sitting through Devil.