You know what the film is going to be about.
It’s no secret, but still, a film about the devil? Really? And the whole thing is set in an elevator?
In a lesser story, five people stuck in an elevator car
doesn’t add up to much, but writers Brian Nelson and M. Night Shyamalan know that story is in the details, that dramatic potential lies in the tension and conflict between characters, half-truths and misinformation sow the seeds of red herrings and strawmen to come.
Whether you like his films or not, Shyamalan knows how to set us up.
He’s good at starting us off unbalanced.
A door is opened to the devil by an apparent suicide from the twenty-somtethingth floor of whatever building in downtown Philly. He likes this sort of thing, so he’s in. (or is it she’s in?)
Ramirez, a security guard watching over the building from cameras, is our oracle. Like Obi Wan, he brings the mystical, providing the voiceover in the beginning and letting us know what to expect along the way.
When I was a child, my mother would tell me a story about how the Devil roams the Earth. Sometimes, she said, he would take human form so he could punish the damned on Earth before claiming their souls. The ones he chose would be gathered together and tortured as he hid amongst them, pretending to be one of them. I always believed my mother was telling me an old wives’ tale.
Detective Bowden is first assigned to the suicide, which all but comes with a note saying, ‘you’ll only understand what you see here by looking backward’. Then, by virtue of being in the neighborhood, he’s brought in on the call which connects him to the elevator.
Devil wants to sell us on character, and it does have a few, but only Detective Bowden is very real to us. He’s a man with a tortured past, but he seems to be holding things together fairly well – maybe even too well, we might think, for someone a mere ninety days sober after going off the deep end the past five years since the hit-and-run death of his family on Bethlehem Pike. He doesn’t let the pain show through much, but that’s because his family’s death is a plot point more than it is the basis for character development.
As for the people in the elevator, it’s hard to care. Sure, they’re riddled
with flaws, strengths and Achilles’ heels. Physically, they’re as balanced as if they were the lead in to a bawdy joke. A giant of a security guard, a smarmy salesman, an old lady with an evil stare, a pretty woman, and a mechanic with a bit of history in Afghanistan as a Marine. They all have distinctive appearances and obvious faults, but with all of that, I didn’t really care a bit.
What breaks the film and what makes it are captured in two quotes.
A stressed-out Ramirez, after confessing all his religious explanation and somehow not getting sent home (Is dropping toast jelly-side down really helping here?! No, it’s ludicrous and he needed to go home or be fired. Immediately.), informs Bowden that, “we’re all here for a reason. Even you and me, the observers. We were chosen for a reason.” (something like that, I can’t find the actual quote)
From this moment, we say to ourselves, ‘oh, right. This is M. Night Shyamalan, and he see’s dead people,’ and we immediately know who the Devil is and how things are going to end.
And then there’s the devil himself, who says, “Damn. I really wanted you,” before taking off, unfulfilled. And we have our sympathy for the devil.