Directed by John Erick Dowdie
Devil reminds me of old pulpy films from the fifties. It’s not funny but fun, not exactly dramatic but oddly captivating. We might not empathize with the characters the way we’re meant to, but we care to know more about their lives.
The narrative of Devil unfolds like the beats of a true crime murder mystery, one of those Dateline specials or tabloid articles. We know just enough about a variety of characters to make them stand out and to allow us to fill in the rest of who they are in our own heads. When told one character is a scammer, then we can probably assume what this tells us about who he really is. One guy is a handsome cop who hasn’t had a drink in a few months? We know to admire this character and empathize with his struggle.
I guess putting it another way, we know enough to care about them but not for them.
The movie opens with intimidating shots of the Philadelphia skyline. The image is flipped upside down, meant to evoke the image of hell, and along with the dark score we hear the voice over of a man named only Ramirez (Jacob Vargas). He’s a deeply religious man who announces what we already know based on the movie’s marketing, that the devil is among us.
The story follows a group of five people trapped in a skyscraper elevator. One of them is the devil, but it takes them a while to figure out this is the case. Instead, when the lights flicker and they’re picked off one by one, the group turns on each other as in John Carpenter’s The Thing. One of them is a killer, they believe, but it’s unclear who. When the suspicion falls on a particular person, they are always the next in line to be killed, as if specifically done in just to prove that none of this makes any sense.
Half of the movie takes place outside the elevator, following the investigation by previously mentioned handsome detective with a dark side, Detective Bowden (Chris Messina). He has a tragic backstory which intersects (however improbable) with the main storyline.
Bowden struggles to make sense of the madness, which he and the building security can look in on from a security camera (though they can’t hear those inside). Through a microphone they can speak to the elevator inhabitants, and this allows them to study them like lab rats, even as they intend to save their lives.
Now, Ramirez is one of the security dudes, and he’s the one who believes pretty quickly that the devil is involved. This is a tricky thing, to make it believable that the characters would catch on to the devil’s involvement. None of the other characters have any reason to follow this line of thinking, so the narrative needs a religious character to jump straight to such a conclusion.
A little while later Bowden will give into his logic.
I wonder what the importance is of these characters knowing the devil is involved. Would the story work the same way if it was only shown from inside the elevator. I think this might make for a better film, maybe just a thirty or forty minute story. We would be just as claustrophobic as the characters, with only a disembodied voice guiding us, and we would have no sense of what was going on.
The story needs to have an active protagonist, however, so it follows that the characters must understand what is happening at some point. No one inside the elevator would have any reason to believe the horror is somehow mystical, so this responsibility falls to Bowden, narratively speaking.
Because he has such an important role, then, the movie makes him the protagonist, even as he is separated from all the action, and it gives him a forced, almost cliche backstory which has no business existing inside the film.
Enough of this story feels original (five people trapped inside the elevator, one is the devil? Sign me up), but it’s weighed down by familiar tropes, dull and expository dialogue, unlikely leaps in character logic and Bowden’s backstory which is doled out throughout the story in forced moments that halt any momentum.
The result is that this story belongs to Bowden when it shouldn’t belong to anyone. The intriguing premise gives away to a rote (that the right word?) story loaded with cliches, some overracting and melodrama.
Still, it’s a fun movie, but those types of movies typically wear out their welcome 20-30 minutes before the end, as this one does.
Up Next: Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), First Reformed (2017), Cul-de-sac (1966)