17 September 2010
Right off the bat I could tell two things about Devil, before we've even met our characters. The first thing I could tell came from the disorienting, slightly thrilling title sequence photography, which consisted of helicopter shots of (what I assume was) Philadelphia upside down! The shots were really effective, in that I felt affected by them, but I couldn't tell you to what end, and the more of them they showed me the more I couldn't help but try and find meaning in them. It's an upside-down world? We already live in an underworld of sorts? Going down is not as safe as it seems? Yeah, nothing. So the first thing I knew was, this movie was going to occasionally do something because it was cool or evocative or pretty or disorienting without really giving much thought to what that really meant. This was not a surgically precise film, it was a sledgehammer. This was not the tightly controlled sniper picking off a very specific target, it was a shotgun blast.
The second thing I could tell came from the voiceover, which would come back throughout. In general, common wisdom in screenwriting is, voiceover is bad. Voiceover is awful. Voiceover is, as they say, the devil. It's lazy writing, often telegraphing or shorthanding more complicated things and rushing the story to the audience in the least engaging way possible: by outright telling them. There is a reason lectures are so poorly attended; writers please take note that if you are going to just tell me stuff, it had better be really amazing stuff. Many films have made use of voiceover narration to prove it can be done wisely. Wings of Desire, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, Fight Club, The Informant!, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, off the top of my head, all use it in unique and worthwhile ways. Devil tries to. Devil fails. The voiceover continually updates us on a preposterously specific and relevant "series" of bedtime stories, folklore of the devil that's so concrete and exact that all other accounts of the devil should hereby be dismissed as hogwash, because they don't involve five people in a room together with one of them being an impostor; they don't happen out in public, which is clearly how the devil would pull his tricks (and does, if you believe Rodriguez's mother [or grandmother's?] stories). The voiceover also telegraphs events in a way meant to be suspense-building but in fact neutralizes any chance of surprise throughout. Comments like "Also he kills bystanders trying to help" and "He always makes sure a loved one comes to see the last death, to 'make us doubt everything' " really kill any chance for the movie to surprise me.
Whenever we would cut to the drama inside the elevator, or at least inside the building, I was passingly engaged in the characters, though hoping for more. But I would check out at best, groan at worst, whenever we hit a new chapter mark and the latino security guard's voiceover would kick in with some weird little gem that was way, way too exact to be in "every story" his crazy mom/grandmom would tell him at night (how boring for this kid to hear variations on such a rigid formula! it'd be like watching a whole lot of romcoms or action movies or contained thrillers back to back! oh wait...). So the movie for me moved in mildly aggravating fits and starts.
Somewhere in there is an interesting story, but it would have to have the devil premise (which is the whole point, unfortunately) completely exorcised. Even a supernatural killer would be okay, but it can't be Satan please. Focus on the characters and the drama and not on the cliff's-notes narration and you might find something worth filming. The dialogue and acting and containedness of it all reminded me of Cube, which also flirted with being a better movie than it was, but actually came a lot closer. In the end, Devil was short enough that I don't regret seeing it, but it was neither scary enough, engaging enough, or intelligent enough to justify itself for me, as-is. M. Night stories are just too obvious, too blunt, and collapse too easily under even the slightest of scrutiny. This is no exception.
But man, it feels like it's been a while since I watched a movie.
Seen at Century 16 Eastport.