Fool Me Once, Shame On You. Fool Me Twice, and You've Got a Reputation You'll Never Be Able to Live Up To
Because it apparently needs to be said before any discussion of M. Night Shyamalan takes places, let me get this out of the way first: I don’t care if you figured out The Sixth Sense before the twist. Congratulations. Now stop being so smug about it. It was 11 years ago. Let it go.
Now, here’s my unsolicited take on Shyamalan: I think he’s a far better director than he is a storyteller (and person), and that’s been his greatest detriment. I didn’t like Signs, Lady in the Water, or The Village, but there were moments in each — especially Signs — where I was in complete awe of the man’s talent behind the camera. He has an impeccable sense of pace, and that’s part of what made his later films so disappointing. He has a gift for setting up a story, he just has no ability to finish it anymore, and his reputation for twist endings doesn’t help. Twist endings work best when you’re not looking for the twist. The Sixth Sense both made Shyamalan’s career and killed it, albeit slowly, because he basically created a scenario in all of his subsequent films where his audience was looking for flaws. He is to movies what “Lost” is to television. He’s great at foreplay, but the man can’t finish.
In theory, his Night Chronicles series — of which Devil is the first entry — is smart. He can create smaller stories and hand them off to lesser directors who don’t have to live up to the expectations that we have for a Shyamalan film. Unfortunately, in practice, it’s a failed strategy: Shyamalan’s name is on the movie (as both producer and story-writer), and it doesn’t matter who wrote the screenplay or directed the film, the movie still has to live up to The Sixth Sense (yes, yes. I know. I liked Unbreakable best, too. We’re in the minority).
In any other scenario, Devil is a decent, serviceable, throw-away horror thriller, a OK Netflix option on a quiet Friday night. The screenplay is dreadful, the dialogue is cringe-inducing, and the acting is insufferable, but as B-movies go, it’s engaging enough. Five people are stuck in an elevator. The police and the building’s security are incapable of retrieving them. Each time the lights flicker out in the elevator, someone ends up dead. The police can do little but stand by helplessly and watch, trying to solve which of the five is the murderer, while the victims — growing increasingly paranoid after each death — must await their own fate, unsure themselves of which of them is the killer. And yes: There is a twist. And yes: It is B-movie effective, which is to say, it is implausible, but it surprised me.
The irony here is that, if Devil had had the benefit of Shyamalan’s regular A-list cast, as well as his sense of pacing and his sure-handedness behind the camera (and a better screenwriter), Devil could’ve been a much better movie. But it also would’ve elicited higher expectations, and it would’ve fallen just as short of those expectations as this movie does. In the end, however, because of Shyamalan’s involvement, and because he’s burned us so many times in the past, Devil is mostly a movie you want to hate, less than a movie you actually do.