It would be difficult to get your career off to a better start than M. Night Shyamalan. Out of the gate, first film, universally beloved, Oscar nomination, chicks galore (presumably). The slide that the film maker has taken since would have been unparalleled in the world before Tiger Woods. 2010 though, offered Shyamalan a chance to answer his critics on two fronts: he was set to helm a major fantasy epic of someone else's creation, and he was stepping away from the director's chair to allow others to develop one of his seemingly endless ideas. On the first count, failure would be a nice way of putting it. And now, with "Devil," the Night rejuvenation can officially be declared a wash at best.
"Devil" sets itself up for success with a premise that's simple enough to work. Five total strangers end up on the same elevator, and when that elevator suddenly shuts down and refuses to budge, the rougher side of human nature begins to rear its head. Unfortunately, on top of this juicy idea Shyamalan decided to layer a poorly thought out Christian story about the Devil coming to Earth to punish the wicked before damning them to hell. For any mentally deficient members of the audience, this element of the plot is spelled out in voiceover that is unnecessary to the point of insult. You see the "Devil" of the title is not a metaphor or allegorical reference. It's the Devil. Like, the one from the Bible, and now he is on an elevator with four unsuspecting victims. Where does M. Night come up with this stuff?!
Oh, right. The Bible.
While viewers' hearts are going out to the poor souls trapped on the elevator, they are also being asked to observe the proceedings through the eyes of troubled Philadelphia detective Bowden. Having lost his wife and child to a hit and run drunk driver, Bowden sank into an alcoholic depression. He has emerged, though not without scars, and he has arrived on the scene to face the Devil himself. As a vehicle for the action, Bowden leaves a great deal to be desired. Chris Messina's performance stands out for its stiffness. The characters trapped in the 10 square feet of space do an admirable job of selling their predicament, particularly as the scene gets grislier. This is actually high praise, as they're not given much to work with, and their back stories, such that we learn them, are as thin as allowable by law.
The sad part of this whole experience is that "Devil" is not a terrible film -- but it could have been so much better than simply "watchable." The cinematography by long time Shyamalan collaborator Tak Fujimoto offers some compelling images, while the direction by John Dowdle at least ratchets the tension up a few notches. The trouble is with the soul of the film, overly narrated and embodied by a superstitious Hispanic security guard. As conceived "from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan", that soul reveals itself to be essentially empty, nothing more than the mashing together of Christian customs and half-read Bible stories. Maybe most insulting is that the faith that the film tells us has been lost by Detective Bowden, is easily won back, and at little threat to the detective's well-being. It's no challenge to capital-B Believe in the face of incontrovertible evidence -- say, something along the lines of the actual Devil showing up and killing a bunch of people. Compare this trajectory to the far greater spiritual complexity on display in the recent "Last Exorcism."
"Devil" displays flare, and at time flirts with some real horror success, but it's many of the same hiccups that we've seen before from projects bearing the Shyamalan name that drive this thing off course. Among the lesser issues is, amazingly, the film's twist ending, which on a scale of one to entirely predictable, falls higher than is usually tolerable. The film earns it though, so that even if it does feel like a cheat of sorts, it's not entirely unforgivable. If only the film's other flaws were as easily written off.