by Andy Nowicki
The credit sequence at the start of the 2010 film Devil is conceptually uncomplicated, yet breathtakingly powerful in impact. Its genius lies in the way it takes a standard, even clichéd, series of images, and quite literally ... inverts them.
As Fernando Velazquez's ominous, Bernard Herrmannesque score plays over the soundtrack, we are taken for a virtual ride across the heights of a skyscraper-filled cityscape — a point of view we've witnessed in perhaps hundreds of movies before, one that would be completely unremarkable except for the fact that in this case, everything we see is upside-down.
This simple but striking shift in perspective is not thematically haphazard or accidental. And it isn't done just to induce motion-sickness in the viewer. Rather, it is meant to introduce us into the world of this neat little supernatural thriller, to allow us to look through the eyes of the Devil himself, from whose skewed perspective up is down and down is up, for whom good is bad and bad is good; who can indeed be characterized as a fearsome bird of prey swooping through the world like a hawk, seeking human souls to devour.
As the credits end, an unknown person leaps, or perhaps is thrown, from a high floor of one particular skyscraper, and his body crashes into the top of a truck parked on the street below. The only possible witness, a worker in the first-floor lobby, is cleaning the floor and wearing earmuffs. His back is turned; he neither sees nor hears the impact. The message: We humans, engaged in our earthly, day-to-day tasks, are often totally unaware of the spiritual war that surrounds us and the casualties it exacts.
The plot of the movie, which was conceived by M. Night Shyamalan (who also produced) and directed by John Erick Dowdle, involves two seemingly unrelated stories that soon intertwine. The first concerns Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), a weary, sad-eyed cop who lost his family in a hit-and-run accident, and who only recently has gotten clean following a despairing, months-long alcoholic bender in the aftermath of the tragedy. Like Mel Gibson's character in Shyamalan's Signs, Bowden is furious with God for taking his beloved wife and son away from him; he buries himself in his work in an effort to escape his existential anger and consuming grief.
The second story follows a group of five strangers who make what turns out to be a fateful choice in boarding an elevator at the same time. The elevator is in the same building where the suicide or murder victim fell to his or her death earlier in the day, and we soon discover that this initial incident may only signal the beginning of a greater catastrophe, which will end in a lot more death and bloodshed.
The unsuspecting elevator dwellers include a leering salesman (Geoffrey Arend), a young, flirtatious, well-dressed woman (Bojana Novakovic), a dour, middle-aged businesslady (Jenny O'Hara), a skittish and grouchy security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), and a war veteran with a lost and haunted countenance (Logan Marshall-Green). Each of them, we find, has a sordid past, but one of them may just be the Devil him-or-herself.
Five little Indians... and one of them is the Devil.
When the elevator breaks down, and no mechanical problem can be discovered by the building's staff, the passengers start to die off one by one, in a manner that recalls Agatha Christie's classic novel Ten Little Indians. Each death happens during a brief and inexplicable power outage, when things go dark. As the body count mounts, those who remain alive grow ever more terrified, paranoid, and claustrophobic. Bowden, who just happened to be in the area (but is there really such a thing as coincidence?) is called into the case, and with the help of some of the building's staff, tries to piece things together in order to avert a disaster whose origins are confoundingly mysterious.
Though the film isn't actually directed by Shyamalan, it has his auteur's fingerprints all over it. I have written elsewhere of the frequent racialist overtones in this Indian-born director's body of work, and at The Last Ditch I've noted the accompanying harsh and contentious critical response to his films, increasing over the years. This film, with its strong, silent white heroes — Messina's character, whose virtue is evident from the start, and another whose redemptive, self-sacrificing heroism doesn't manifest itself until the movie's conclusion — represents in many ways a chip off that same block, thematically speaking. But it also highlights another aspect of the Shyamalan ethos that many of his critics openly despise: it is faith-friendly, implicitly critical of liberal secularism and skepticism, and openly recommending belief in a transcendent order.
In Devil, interestingly enough, we have two Hispanic men, both with obvious Catholic allegiances, who nudge the stoically suffering white hero in the right direction spiritually. One is Bowden's AA sponsor, a frank, tattoo-plastered fellow who encourages the detective to seek his "Higher Power" in an early scene at a late-night diner. The other is Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), a short, quiet but excitable guy who, while monitoring the CCTV camera's images in the building, thinks he spots an evil, distorted-looking face flashing across the screen, prompting him to remember a childhood story about demonic visitation, and thus to understand that something diabolical is afoot in the elevator shaft.
The hero — he of little faith — dismisses these "superstitious" notions at first, but gradually grows to accept Ramirez's counsel, fantastic as it sounds. (One is reminded Hamlet's admonition to Horatio: "There are more things in heaven and earth ... than are dreamt of in your philosophy.") Eventually, a growing openness to possibilities he'd never before entertained — including a faith in things unseen — leads Bowden to solve the case, to save innocent lives, and even to let go of the hatred and bitterness in his heart toward someone who has done him a terrible wrong. Through faith, redemption and forgiveness take place. We end with another shot of the cityscape, this time right-side-up, and a final message from the narrative voiceover: "If the Devil exists, then God must exist, too."
Thanks to all the roiling, poisonous Shyamalan-hatred out there, Devil fizzled at the box office. (In its opening week it finished a distant third, well behind The Town and Easy A.) Yet I predict that this brainy, low-budget horror film, with its unusual story and perspective, its quirks, subtleties, and solid chills, will readily attain a cult following in the near future.
And, the Eighth Commandment aside, someone's got to steal its beguiling opening shot — that whole damned sequence just begs to be homaged!
(Originally published at The Last Ditch.)