M. Night Shyamalan (The Last Airbender) has done it again. Only this time, he wasn’t even in the director’s chair.
Devil, directed by John Erick Dowdle and written by Brian Nelson, is based on a story by Shyamalan, who also serves as the film’s producer. Yet despite his indirect involvement with the film’s production, the movie has Shyamalan all over it – and not in a good way.
Beginning with an intriguing premise, Devil proceeds to batter the audience into boredom with poorly structured suspense, a supernatural plot that strains to be credible, and an atmosphere that has all the dramatic weight of your latest grocery shopping trip.
Narration quickly sets up the story, revealing how the Devil has embarked on a nefarious quest called a “Devil’s meeting” whereby he gathers together a group of wrongdoers and disguises himself in their midst, tormenting and ultimately killing them.
Next, we are introduced to the Devil’s unfortunate playthings; a mechanic played by Logan Marshall-Green (Across the Universe); an old woman played by Jenny O’Hara (How to Make Love to a Woman); a young woman played by Bojana Novakovic (Edge of Darkness); a security guard played by Bokeem Woodbine (The Butcher); and a salesman played by Geoffrey Arend (500 Days of Summer). Before long, they are all brought together in the confined space of an elevator, which breaks down and traps its occupants within. The Devil begins his nasty business and a string of gratuitous murders quickly ensues.
The acting from the relatively unknown cast is surprisingly solid, the group of victims all playing their parts with sound seriousness. Brian Nelson’s screenplay, however, is a mess. The supernatural element is revealed from the beginning, leaving little mystery to be explored as we simply wait for character after character to die in some gruesome fashion. The intriguing premise of a group of strangers being stuck together, all suspecting each other as the murders mount, is completely undermined by plotting that fails spectacularly in being frightening, mysterious or suspenseful. Worse still, the film is littered with moments of unintentional hilarity that leave you chuckling rather than fretting. One particularly dreadful scene has a character establishing the presence of the Devil by testing whether a piece of toast falls upside down when dropped. Seriously.
Dowdle’s direction can only maintain the illusion of competency for so long, revealing itself as insipid and without tension the moment things get hairy. Even at a mere 80 minutes long, the film goes on numerous wild goose chases in order to pad out the mystery, yet another indication that Devil was an idea best kept deep in the recesses of Shyamalan’s mind.