Devil came out at a bad time for M. Night Shyamalan. His previous three movies were The Happening, Lady in the Water, and The Village, and he was just about to release The Last Airbender. Have you seen The Last Airbender? It was bad. That’s not the movie we’re talking about though. We’re talking about this random jewel that was planted in the midst of the rest of that chaffI just mentioned. Sure, it was a screenplay written by Brian Nelson and directed by John Erick Dowdle, but this was still definitively a Shyamalan movie when it came out. Want to take a deep dive on this oft-forgetten entry in his polarizing career? Well, then keep on reading our spoiler filled review below.
Reviewed by: Mark
Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) is a Philadelphia detective investigating a suicide. Someone jumped off a building and landed on a truck. Only problem is, there aren’t any tall buildings near where the truck is. Through some really stellar gumshoe work he traces the suicide back to a skyscraper up the block, but in the course of his investigation he stumbles across something much more sinister.
Meanwhile, five strangers (Logan Marshall Green, Jenny O’Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, and Geoffrey Arend) board an elevator in the same building that housed the suicider. These strangers have no idea who each other are and are all there for different reasons. As their elevator climbs there is an uneasiness amongst them before the elevator shorts out and stalls dozens of floors in the air. It’s an express shaft so there are no exit doors anywhere near them. They are trapped until they can be rescued.
As the detective is already on site, still investigating the suicide, he is asked to jump onto the case of the stuck elevator. He works with the two building security guards (Jacob Vargas and Matt Craven) to communicate with the folks to keep them calm and reassure them that help is on the way. Except, wouldn’t you know it, things just keep going wrong. And by wrong, I mean that the lights keep going out and people keep getting brutally murdered in the darkness. First, the salesman has a piece of glass shoved into his neck. Then, the old lady is hung by the neck until dead. The guard’s head is twirled around backwards. As the numbers dwindle the detective loses patience and the animosity between the people in the elevator rises.
As the group finally dwindles down to its final two people we are finally given the turn. Throughout the movie it is slowly revealed that all of the people in the elevator are shitty people who have lied and cheated and stolen in order to make their way in life. When the party finally diminishes down to just the mechanic, it is shown that the Devil himself was in the elevator with them the whole time, masquerading as the old lady that was hung from the ceiling. He has been collecting the souls of those who were sinners in life. The mechanic, now overcome with guilt and fear, confesses to murdering a family on the turnpike while drunk driving some years prior. The detective hears his confession and reveals that it was his own family that the man killed. The devil, apparently defeated by this pretty minor act of repentance, refrains from harvesting his soul and disappears.
The rescue crews finally reach the elevator and are able to get the soul survivor out just in time for him to most likely face at least six counts of murder. It’s a happy ending?
What the Movie Does Right
The best thing about this movie is the tightness and complexity of the plot. It is essentially a modern day feature length episode of The Twilight Zone. I can almost hear Rod Serling, cigarette in hand, announcing “Five people enter an elevator, unaware of the cosmic judgement that is about to befall them. For these strangers have nothing in common other than their treatment of their fellow man, but here that is the currency they will use to pay for their ride through…. The Twilight Zone.” The movie never rests or allows boredom to set in as every time a stretch of nothingness happens they cut over either to one of the building employees trying to fix things, or to the detective revealing some new salacious detail about one of the people in the elevator. For as many twists and turns as this thing has it’s sort of miraculous that it is crammed entirely into an 80 minute run-time (including credits). We like tight narratives around these parts, and this is a very tight narrative.
Secondly, the movie is held together by some incredibly strong performances. I assume they don’t teach you in acting school how to react to five people systematically being brutally murdered directly in front of you, and yet all of these folks seem to do a great job of it. In a movie where the core concept is legitimately absurd having these high level grounded performances keeps this from being a B-movie schlock fest and actually demands that it is taken seriously.
Lastly, and this is honestly something more that the movie does middle but I still wanted to discuss it, the movie ends on an interesting bounce. Typically, within the horror genre the viewer is left with the worst possible view on things. Maybe the final girl survives, but she is usually fully traumatized by the event or otherwise haunted by the knowledge that the killer is still out there. True to Shyamalan form this one ends with an uplifting message of forgiveness. The closing lines of the movie “”if the devil is real then god is real” is meant to comfort the viewers as they leave the theatre. This is super schmaltzy and almost literally a deus ex machina, but also something unique and atypical to the genre that should at least be highlighted as an interesting exception.
What the Movie Does Wrong
The mechanisms of the plot are pretty threadbare. Sure, you can wave your hand as the screenwriter and say “the devil did it” every time something goes wrong, but also that’s some pretty lazy writing. The elevator doesn’t work because… I don’t know…. Magic I guess? You know what would be better than specifically avoiding telling us what’s wrong with the elevator? Coming up with an actual thing that could go wrong and telling us that that’s what happened. I guess you could argue that these super low probability events happening are evidence of the evil power at work, but in the real world as a viewer it just seems lazy and silly.
Similarly, why is the suicide important to the story? It’s shoehorned in that somehow a suicide needs to happen for the devil to appear, but there’s no actual reason for that aside from that the screenwriter wanted to include that detail. Then later the detectives go out of their way to inform the audience that this, in fact, was not a suicide. So what the hell is going on then? This minor plot contrivance that wasn’t necessary in the first place is undermined and abandoned within the first few minutes of the film and basically only serves to get the detective on site. Why not just have the detective be called to the site directly? It’s so loose and strange that I can’t bring myself to understand how this ragged nonsense made its way into the otherwise pretty well conceived script. Don’t even get me started on how the truck rolled down a fully populated street in the center of the city and no one even realized that it crashed into a neighboring alley. Honestly, it’s all just so fucking absurd.
Story: 6 - On balance the story here is intriguing and relatively tight. That said, there are also a lot of ragged edges still left on this movie. Maybe they just didn’t want to cut the runtime down to 70 minutes?
World-Building / Immersion: 6.5 - If you can accept the premise the performances in the movie form a great anchor to tie your attention to. There is almost no weak point to the cast. Additionally, the world of the elevator and the surrounding building are well realized and feel claustrophobic and cold.
Scare-Factor: 5 - There is certainly enough violence and suspense sewed into the seams of this movie to warrant at least an average score.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 6 - Look, to be real with you, I’m mostly punting on this score. It’s certainly a judicious lack thereof movie. The sets are probably the best part of the effects in the movie. But otherwise, all of the violence happens in darkness as the lights go out and any of the other effects are based around the CCTV system acting up.
Overall: 6.66 - This was going to be in this neighborhood anyway and I would be doing a sincere disservice to not rate this thing using the number of the beast. You should see this one if you haven’t, but it’s reliance on a twisty narrative means you’ll probably get diminishing returns after your first viewing.