Thursday, September 23, 2010

Five Characters In Search Of An Exit

After The Sixth Sense (1999), writer/director M. Night Shyamalan was instantly hailed as a potential heir to Rod Serling, a humanistic weaver of weird tales capped with flabbergasting twists. Eleven years later, there's good news and bad news on the Shyamalan front. He remains a brand name - so much so that a new series of films has just been launched under the umbrella title of The Night Chronicles, starting with the new Twilight Zone-ish thriller Devil. The bad news is that as a brand, Shyamalan is perceived to be circling the drain. It would be mean to call him a joke but, whether it's deserved or not, that seems to be the overriding consensus these days. No mention of Devil's trailer was allowed to pass in the media without the writer noting how audiences reacted with laughter at the appearance of Shyamalan's name. Unsatisfied with his recent work (and by "recent," I mean almost since The Sixth Sense), the culture has collectively decided that Shyamalan is a one-trick pony whose day is done.

Personally, I find that to be harsh. Mind you, I haven't seen The Happening (2008) so I'm little behind on what he's been up to but based on his other films, I like that he's a thoughtful filmmaker in a genre where most like to play it dumb. The expression of Shyamalan's ideas may not always be 100% successful but I appreciate that he's trying. I'll take even a slightly failed bid to take the genre audience to an elevated place over the knee-jerk nihilism of someone like Rob Zombie any day. Based on interviews I've read, it seems like Shyamalan himself is mystified by the hit his reputation has taken and to his credit, he hasn't changed his style or approach at all to accommodate his critics. He's telling stories the same way he's been telling them from the start and if it's not to the taste of the public anymore, there's not much he can do to change it. In this regard, Shyamalan has joined the company of almost every genre filmmaker - from John Carpenter to George Romero - who find themselves laboring under the scrutiny of fans and critics who constantly compare their new work unfavorably to the initial work that made their name.

With The Night Chronicles, Shyamalan is originating the concepts but assigning the actual scripting and directing duties to others while he stays on as a producer. On Devil, the duo of brothers John Erick Dowdle (director) and Drew Dowdle (producer) - best known for 2008's shaky-cam shocker Quarantine - and screenwriter Brian Nelson were responsible for bringing this tale of an elevator ride of the damned to the screen. The results are not spectacular but Devil's modest charm bodes well for the future of The Night Chronicles as a series that could bring some of the shine back to Shyamalan's name.

Set in a mysteriously stalled elevator, Devil puts five random people together and - as building security, maintenance crews, police and firefighters work to extract them - it becomes clear that this is not just a routine crisis. The Prince of Darkness himself is aboard this elevator and no earthly force is going to interfere with his nefarious business. The mystery for the audience is in guessing which one of these apparently ordinary people is really the devil in disguise.

Is it Ben (Bokeem Woodbine), the hotheaded security guard? Is it Jane Cowski (Jenny O'Hara), an old woman with a penchant for lifting wallets? Is it Vince (Geoffrey Arend), a mattress salesman and first-class dick? Is it Tony (Logan Marshall-Green), a war vet who served time in Afganistan? Or is it Sarah (Bojana Novakovic), a scheming gold-digger? All is revealed by end of Devil's brief 80 minute running time.

The guessing game that Devil invites its audience to participate in is a fun one and its brisk storytelling ensures that Devil doesn't slog its way to its finale. It might be a simplistic morality tale but the Dowdle's ability to keep Devil tight and to the point makes it feel like they knew exactly how long to keep an audience waiting for the pay-off. If it were any longer, Devil would've been likely to instigate a "is that it?" reaction. As is, it's an example of efficient storytelling and that kind of clear-eyed application of craft is always welcome.

Besides the inevitable twist, Shyamalan's influence can be seen in the spiritual aspect of Devil. Its plot calls back to Signs (2002) in that every seemingly random incident in the character's lives is shown to be guided by greater forces. This argument for the need for religious belief comes across as heavy-handed (and sometimes unintentionally comic) and it's not helped any by voice-over narration that hammers the movie's themes home, just in case anyone might not be paying attention. Devil could've done without Shyamalan's need to sermonize and I have to imagine that the more strident aspects of Devil were a direct result of Shyamalan's input. It's a shame that Shyamalan doesn't trust his audience to intuit the underlying messages of his films on their own as Devil would've benefited from a lighter touch.

Still, Devil at least shows that others can effectively adapt Shyamalan's ideas - maybe more adeptly than Shyamalan himself. Maybe the example of Dowdle's fleet-footed finesse will bring out the best in Shyamalan again the next time he gets behind the camera.


Anonymous said...

I can't wait to see this and plan on doing so this weekend.

I think you are spot on regarding your thoughts on Shyamalan's career and perception. Although I thought the Happenening and Lady in the Water were both low points (both boring and very heavy handed) I can appreciate that he was continuing to do something different. Maybe the narration and the need to explain everything in Devil is Shyamalan's reaction to critics or film goers who have a hard time figuring out his messages? Regardless, it frustrates me when filmmakers nowadays feel the need to resort to explaining each and every detail.

Great review.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks Cortez - hope you end up enjoying Devil, too! It's a little hokey, a little preachy, but short and to the point with some decent PG-13 level scares. It's definitely the most crowd-pleasing movie Shyamalan has had his name on in awhile.

knobgobbler said...

Shamalamadingdong pissed me off royally with 'Signs'... hokey, smarmy, preachy... and 'The Happening' really put the bolts in the coffin and welded them shut.
Still... I think his brand of snake oil might be a lot better served in smaller helpings with a bit less auteur-like control.
He's no Rod Serling bit I'd be curious if this 'Night Chronicles' project morphed into an anthology series.

Jeff Allard said...

I think the Night Chronicles will continue - at the very least they'll get one more movie out. Based on Devil's quality, though, I hope they can go a few more than that.