OK, let’s get past the fact that this film hasn’t been eagerly anticipated due to M. Night’s association. There now we can evaluate this an appreciate this for what it is; a surprisingly good and pretty cool supernatural “who dun it?“. For those of you remaining rightfully skeptical, in this film Night is really just providing the outline for the story and letting someone else do all the work. Taking him away from the helm seems like the right idea. The good news is that is just what the film needed and really works despite some minor flaws.
Right off the bat, this film faces a challenge by setting it in such a contained environment. I mean it is kind of difficult to get creative in a closed space like an elevator. Things can really go from boring to bad pretty quickly. But I guess the way you make it interesting is the old “less is more” method. The one constant and effective element in every M. Night film (who was heavily influenced by Hitchcock) is recognizing that a person’s mind is more imaginative than any practical or CG effect. This method leaves so much room for interpretation, even in an elevator and lets the guessing game unfold. The story is quite a bit more elaborate than you’d expect and is inventive in more than a few ways. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, you find that you’re wrong.
The 5 unassuming characters were quite interesting and nothing about anyone of them gave anything away. Moreover, the casting of mostly unknowns was essential in helping the keep the mystery. In my eyes, having a star or two would have tricked your mind into fixating on whoever may have had top billing. A film like this works better when all the cast are viewed as being on the same level. It worked because each character gave you reasons to consider them and then disregard them, but still not entirely. It was anybody’s game and there was just solid acting all around I’d say. But for me the biggest surprise was the role of the Philly cop (Chris Messina) spearheading the rescue attempts. Being an outsider allowed him to take the lead, be quite charismatic and be the so-called star of the film. While the 5 strangers struggle inside the elevator, he’s the one I found myself pulling for. I for one would like (and expect) to see him in more after this.
The film starts with some already disorienting opening credits and some narration (that I think could have been left out) which firmly established the mood of the film. Devil got off and running pretty quickly and while I expected a little more time outside the elevator, they wasted no time in throwing the players in the mix. A perfect combination of great editing and a metronome-like score, the film built very very well and really took me off guard several times. Further I was impressed with how deep into the film I got. Maybe it was the shock that I was actually enjoying myself but still Tak Fujimoto’s inspired cinematography, I believe, framed engaging shots that in less experienced hands could have been very boring. Devil had a pretty short running time but it certainly didn’t feel like it.
Even though the obligatory “BOO” scenes may have been trite, they were actually kind of shocking and was not expecting to jump in my seat. Again, not showing you something can be more effective than actually showing you. To aid in the mystery, there are a number of red herrings thrown in to keep the guessing game going and to me it worked very well. Even small things like the red star on Bokeem Woodbine’s uniform kept me wondering about its significance as I tried to anticipate the ending (I figured it out but still didn’t have it quite right). This film was replete with cliche elements having to do with the Devil (like putting them on the number “6” elevator as well as all the red buttons, clothing elements, etc). It made me roll my eyes on repeat occasions, yet for a film called Devil I guess it can’t be helped and should be expected. Side note here, when I saw this, I was, strangely, the only one in the theater and the red EXIT signs and red running lights provided perfect ambient mood lighting. Combine that with what was on screen and I just had to laugh but still enjoyed the hell out of it.
While I’m now very cautious after being burned on train wrecks like Lady in the Water and The Happening, I’m really glad I took a chance on this. Deep down I had a feeling that, with M. Night merely guiding the efforts of John Erick Dowdle, this wouldn’t be half bad at all. All in all there were scares that not only impressed me but were legitimate and, in short, the film worked. It is a great watch especially if you happen to come in begrudgingly expecting that anything with M. Night’s name attached will be a nose-dive. This should prove to impress those willing to forsake the negative hype. Lastly, while we’re a month out from Halloween, I think this is just the type of eerily moody and suspenseful film to kick off the Fall movie season. This is one I really want to see again.