The instinct to beat up on Devil, director John Erick Dowdle’s follow-up to Quarantine, sight-unseen is obviously because M. Night Shyamalan’s name is now synonymous with cheap third-act twists. If it’s a “Shymalan movie,” and Devil technically is (Shyamalan came up with the story for the film and produced it, making it the first entry from his fledgling Night Chronicles production company), people now can boast that they see the other shoe well before it drops.
And when that loafer does drop in Devil, a thriller set in, though mostly just around, an elevator, it doesn’t make much of an impact. Brian Nelson’s half-hearted script spends too much time juggling various plot threads that it trivializes the few that are important to the film, namely the ones that strengthen its emphasis on symmetry and penitence. Nothing feels like it matters outside of the elevator and yet the bulk of the film takes place there. If Dowdle and Nelson stuck us in the elevator with the film’s protagonists the whole time, this wouldn’t be a problem, but unfortunately, the drama’s significance comes from outside, not in. Nelson’s strategy is counter-intuitive and he almost single-handedly deflates the considerable tension Dowdle infuses the film with.
With elements of Vincenzo Natali’s energizing short film Elevated, Natali’s superb first feature Cube, and—spoilers ahead!—even a crucial plot point from Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, Devil is a locked-room mystery with a pseudo-religious twist. Five strangers are stuck in an elevator for reasons that can’t be explained by the security guards watching them: It’s not a malfunction with the elevator and there’s almost nothing that can be done to get them out. It’s a mystery why, but for reasons that are still a bit bewildering, Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), one of the security guards helplessly watching the five victims, sees a face in the security camera footage he’s poring over and volunteers that what they’re looking at is the work of Satan. It’s a ludicrous notion and unfortunately one delivered with very little conviction.
Any fan of detective fiction will tell you that for a locked-room drama to work, you can’t let anyone, including the reader, exit the locked room. It’s why Natali, who Dowdle pays homage to by naming a bystander after a character from Cube, never shifted his focus from the characters in Cube‘s cube or the elevator in Elevated. By ping-ponging from the protagonists in the security booth, back to the elevator, to a girl outside, to a guy trying to flip switches to jump-start the elevator, to a bunch of firemen, back to the elevator, then to the security office again, Nelson frenetically skirts past the fact that he hasn’t really told us anything about the people in the elevator. Realistically, you don’t really need anything more than a bunch of ciphers in a locked-room drama if your locked room is worth a damn, but again: Nelson takes us out of the room so many times that when we’re plunked back down into it, it’s almost as an afterthought.
Furthermore, it’s more than a little weird that Devil focuses on redeeming detective Bowden (Chris Messina), the first cop on the scene (i.e. just a guy who’s not even in the elevator). The way Nelson uses someone inside the elevator to resolve Bowden’s problems is too convenient, though admittedly Bowden’s defining sense of loss after losing his wife and kids in a car accident is fundamentally contrived.
And then there’s the matter of the Devil, an unconvincing MacGuffin that’s jammed down the viewer’s throats with the help of Ramirez’s putrid stories about “The Devil’s Meeting,” a Christian old wives’ tale whose details grow more stale and flat with each new factoid. Ramirez’s story is so bad that eventually “The Devil’s Meeting” sounds like the obvious fiction of a pathological liar. This unfortunately makes him Shyamalan’s stand-in, the person who jump-starts the film’s unmoving hysteria but is ultimately not responsible for its lazy trajectory. And for what it’s worth: I knew it was that guy and/or gal the whole time.