Ever made pudding yourself? Not box pudding, I mean, but from scratch? The ingredients are simple enough: eggs, cream, cocoa, bittersweet chocolate, sugar, pinch of salt, and a thickening agent like cornstarch. The trick to perfect pudding, however, is in the gentle application of heat to the ingredients in the right order. Ingredients added out of order, or insufficiently stirred, or heat applied too fiercely and you get a lumpy mess you are going to have to spoon out over the back fence because you definitely don't want that stuff clogging up your kitchen drain.
"Devil" starts out with the required ingredients: a reported budget of $10M, an ensemble of actors with significant prior credits, and a premise reportedly based on a story penned by M. Night Shyamalan. It's a great premise. The devil has come in human form to walk amongst us to collect his toll of souls from the blackmailer, the deserter, the violent, the greedy. The guilty are five apparently random and luckless souls trapped in an express elevator in an elegant downtown tower. One of the five is the King of Lies himself. But which?
The move begins with promise, a simple flyover view of downtown Philadelphia. Only the image is inverted. This is surprisingly disorienting for such a simple technique and yet imparts a sense of unease. Some half of the movie rolls forward in the very narrow confines of the elevator car with the antagonists in easy arm's reach of one another. The other half of the movie takes place within the building as the building mechanic, the chief of building security and a Philadelphia detective work to free the victims and, increasingly, to keep the trapped from one another's throats. This division of story is the main weakness of this film.
The drama in the elevator should have been a pressure cooker on slow boil. When the action is conducted entirely in a single room, the performances, the dialogue, the conflict - all should simmer before they should boil over the top and onto the burner. Think "12 Angry Men" with Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb or Hitchcock's "Rope". With well-written dialogue, the guilt of the five might have been teased out by one another in a slow reveal. Instead, the guilty histories of the trapped are divulged by the efforts of the detective from outside the box, a story-telling technique which adds very little to the tension.
The detective (Messina) comes equipped with a bare-bones tragic back story. Indecent chunks of the reel are devoted to sketching out this history. The tragedy has left the detective spiritually adrift, broken inside, we are made to understand. Now it's not a spoiler, I think, to divulge that this back story will have to intersect with the story of one of the five in the elevator. But because our cook keeps running from the stove top to the store to pick up extra ingredients for soup (because wouldn't soup be nice with the pudding?) none of the dishes turn out. This plot linkage ends up weak, unnecessary and distracting and artificially imposes a wholesome coda on a horror movie. At the end, I found myself thinking of Journey's chestnut, "Don't Stop Belieeeeeevin!"
With Old Scratch himself trapped in an elevator car, there will be blood and very violent death. To conceal his identity at those moments, the lighting in the car will flash on and off. Now this technique can work once, maybe twice, to twist necks and slice arteries in a way that leaves the survivors staring warily at those still standing. When the screen goes completely dark for long seconds, however, it's just silly. Maybe that worked in the theater, but I was watching this at home with my son, age 13. When this happened for the second time, he asked, "Uh, why is the screen black?" Why indeed. This is a movie fer chrissakes. If you suddenly disengage my eyes, they begin searching for something, anything, to look at, in this case the glowing LED's on the tv, the XBox, the phone charging cradle. The sounds of tussling in the dark just aren't enough when you shut down the visuals to literally nothing. It was like the tv went off.
Pointless narration damages the film as well. Now we already have an excellent premise if the cook would just keep the menu to that alone. But no, the narrator has to tell us the devil will come to take his harvest only after a suicide. Really? Sez who, your mom? (Please not that.) The narrator's mother tells us this as in when- I-was-young-Momma-done-told-me. This ham-handed explication had the definite feel of a choice imposed after test-screening questionnaire respondents checked too many boxes for "I felt confused." The movie is called "Devil", okay?
I must deduct further style points for egregious use of a trope. Here a side character, 'Ramirez', is employed to educate the detective about the devil and how the fates of the trapped must play out because, you know, Ramirez is Mexican and Catholic and stuff, so he will recite prayers to the survivors over the elevator speaker when he's left alone in the building control room. The white-man detective can't be in touch with that side of himself so cue the superstitious minority to bring the ruggedly secular up to spiritual speed. Now don't get me wrong, tropes are often necessary plot shortcuts when you are telling a complex story in the context of a movie that will run for only 80 minutes. Some movie makers have mined box office gold by turning tropes on their head (the "Scream" franchise for example). But this one is played straight and reflects nothing less than artless storytelling.
Simple foods prepared well please best. This movie presents too many dishes half-prepared. The cast contributes their required ingredients; the acting is perfectly solid. Production values are high. But the cook has attention deficit disorder to such a degree that this pudding just doesn't set.