John Erick Dowdle's Devil, from a story by M. Night Shyamalan (and script by Brian Nelson), is a great, strong start to Shyamalan's "The Night Chronicles" suspense series. More than your average horror/suspense film, it contemplates life, evil, the city and human failings in a profound, deep, moving, surprising way. It's a beautiful puzzle in plain sight and a pure pleasure, a truly great film.
Devil opens on an ordinary day in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Normal in every way, that is, except that as we tour the city from above, we see it upside down. These opening shots are reminiscent of the folding cityscapes in Inception, and they're just as beautiful, and maybe more meaningful. There's just enough of it to truly make a statement and set a waking nightmare tone which sustains throughout the film, also in league with Fernando Velázquez's dark, solid score and Tak Fujimoto's assured cinematography.
The opening is accompanied by narration from someone we haven't met yet, who starts a folk tale about "The Devil's Meeting," a series of supernatural revelations which occur from time to time, some iteration of which we may be about to witness.
Then immediately we are thrust into the story as Detective Bowden (Chris Messina, great, apparently channeling Jimmy Stewart) meets with his AA sponsor before going on duty. There's a lot to Bowden. He's quick, smart, notices details. He's a very good policeman. Sometimes he follows a particular lead which seems to bypass others, but he doesn't forget anything. There's also a mournful quality to him, for good reason.
While Bowden investigates a death, five seeming strangers enter an elevator in a tall downtown office building. What happens inside, I cannot say, but it is shown with a level of mystery, restraint and detail which is admirable and effective. I won't even tell you the character names of the five, but Geoffrey Arend plays a glib salesman, Logan Marshall-Green (looking like Tom Hardy from Inception) plays a mechanic, Jenny O'Hara an older woman and Bojana Novakovic a younger woman, and finally Bokeem Woodbine a security guard from the building. The elevator stalls. Bowden investigates. The five interact, get snippy, clash and/or form alliances.
That's about all I can say about the plot without ruining it. The film seems to be suffering from its Shyamalan lineage at the box office, so maybe a bunch of people will miss satisfying the mystery for themselves. Their loss. I'm not the biggest Shyamalan fan in the world. I've missed some of his films and don't feel a particular urge to remedy that. If you'd told me at the beginning of the year that I'd be giving two Shyamalan efforts four stars, I might have laughed. But I have to call them as I see them, and Devil is a masterpiece, shot-perfect, note-perfect.
It's taut, too, maybe easy to accomplish with a fairly straightforward but still surprising 80-minute film, but truly that's the perfect length. Nothing is forced, belabored, or missing. The film reminded me of previous sharp work by Shyamalan, and also It's a Wonderful Life, United 93, Rob Zombie's excellent Halloween II, Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield. It's tense, it pays off, it works its symbols, characters and story expertly, masterfully, artistically, never overplaying its hand.
All of the acting is top-flight, with even minor characters getting moments to shine or contribute dramatic pieces which make the whole thing go. Messina, Woodbine, Marshall-Green, Novakovic and Jacob Vargas as another security guard stand out from the pack a bit, but nobody flubs anything.
Devil is just a great movie, a great time at the movies, fun, dark, moody, paced perfectly and built to last. I call it not-to-be-missed. If you hate Shyamalan or feel let down by him, don't let it infect your perceptions of this great film. Or do, I'll probably watch it enough times for it to break even. I've already seen it twice and will again.
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