A towering, luminescent number 1 against a sea of black. This is the image preceding the opening of Devil, the latest film “from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan.” And as the first release for Night’s production company, The Night Chronicles, the aforementioned digit marks the literal beginning of his proposed series of supernatural-themed films. These are films which Night has vowed neither to write or direct, but to offer up as collaborative efforts with other filmmakers, and these filmmakers truly do shine. Their achievements with Devil are compelling evidence that one small step back for M. Night Shyamalan, the director will be one giant leap forward for M. Night Shyamalan, the franchise.
In the film, a beleaguered detective, played with urgency and gravitas by Chris Messina, investigates a suicide near a downtown office building. Meanwhile, 5 strangers, including a security guard, enter an elevator in said office building where, as the poster proclaims, “one of them is not what they seem.” And there is truly little to gain in revealing further plot elements because just like the Space Mountain roller coaster at Disney World, the thrills in an M. Night film are most effective when the audience is left in the dark. In fact, many of the film’s most compelling moments take place in the pitch-black of the malfunctioning elevator. This is where inspired sound direction provides high-octane fuel for overactive imaginations. A brilliant credit sequence that literally turns Philadelphia on its ears, is among the highlights of the graceful cinematography of Tak Fujimoto, Hollywood film legend and past Night collaborator. He captures Devil‘s mood and executes its visual storytelling with bravado. The score by Fernando Velázquez was also highly evocative, and worth noting for setting a brooding, sinister tone from start to finish.
Sadly, such technical proficiency across the board drew attention to a few missteps in narrative, especially some redundant and distracting narration by a security guard (Jacob Vargas), the contents of which bordered on self-spoilers. For the most part, though, the script stays taut and engaging, and under the directorship of the Brothers Dowdle (Quarantine, The Poughkeepsie Tapes), the acting seems substantially more naturalistic and nuanced than in previous M. Night works.
But to be sure, Devil still has Night’s fingerprints all over it. The skeleton of the film is the same one that’s been haunting him for some 15 years now: Something strange is happening in Philadelphia. Themes of the supernatural have been Night’s M.O. since the beginning, from ghosts in The Sixth Sense to Those We Don’t Speak Of in The Village to, uh, killer wind(?) in The Happening, and Devil is no different. There’s even a twist ending, which could hardly come as a surprise to anyone by now. What’s different here is that at long last, Shyamalan seems to have shed what has been a crippling fixation upon his own authorship. In repeated attempts to establish himself as a self-contained talent, as the embodiment of that giant glowing number 1 in a sea of black, perhaps, Night’s early faith in sound thriller film technique (a la Hitchcock) quickly gave way to blind faith in his own artistic whims and fixations, culminating with Lady in the Water, a laborious story-within-a-story that was at best self-indulgent, and at worst, highly alienating to his already waning fan base.
And so it is with an ensemble cast, as well as an ensemble crew, that Devil marks a triumphant return to form for M. Night Shyamalan. Come for the thrills, stay for the story, look forward to future collaborations between Shyamalan and great rising talent, and rest easy knowing you won’t find any God-awful director cameos.
Rated PG-13 – Blood spurts and bodies swing, plus there are scares that dwarf most from his past films (maybe because they aren’t his – Bah-zing!)