Although not considered a thriller, Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit, shows how tensions can fester when people are forced together in a confined space.
Devil takes this concept and brings it into a world of skyscrapers, cell phones, and CCTV security cameras. But at the core is a story of the human condition and how quickly people can degenerate into querulous behavior.
The story begins with Detective Bowden called to investigate the suicide of a victim who jumped through a skyscraper window several stories up. A widower, he’s still trying to deal with the hit-and-run death of his wife and son.
Meanwhile, five people enter an elevator in the same building where the suicide took place. They are given no names, known only by their description or occupation: Guard, Mechanic, Salesman, Old Woman, and Young Woman. Perhaps the intention to keep them nameless is to keep us from identifying with and sympathizing with them. Indeed, they are not the most pleasant characters. Like Sartre’s doomed trio, they hide sins, some darker than others. And it is these sins the Devil is eager to point out.
The elevator soon stops, leaving the five trapped aboard. At first they’re not too alarmed, being assured by the security guards, Lustig and Ramirez, they’ll be rescued before long.
That is, until the lights go out. When they come up, the others are horrified to see the Young Woman has been bitten in her back. Tensions already on the brink start to spill over into accusations. What’s the best way to defeat your enemy? Make them bicker among themselves.
Injury soon leads to death, the first victim being the smarmy, sleazy salesman. Detective Bowden, at the scene of the crime, is called into the building to investigate these strange killings where elevator occupants are picked off one by one until only three are left: the Guard, the Young Woman, and the Mechanic.
Ramirez insists he’s seen the Devil in the elevator when the lights go off. The others, not prone to what they believe is superstition, write off Ramirez’s religious ramblings and seek to find mundane reasons for the stalled elevator and the motive of one whom they believe to be a murderer. The only question is who’s guilty?
By this time, the Young Woman, Mechanic, and Guard, driven to the point of fisticuffs, are ordered to remain in their respective corners. While Bowden and the guards, along with city firefighters, do what they can to free the others, the Devil claims its prize, leaving its victims to reflect upon a world where their sins are bared.
Although not original in its execution, Devil balances tension, building it as the elevator occupants come to realize one of them is a killer. The film is not particularly horrifying, given the murders happen “off-stage,” that is, in the dark. And it didn’t take me long to figure out who the Devil was. The ending was bittersweet, and yet satisfying, a closing chapter on the lives of two characters. Despite its flaws, the film is watchable, compact enough in its 80 minutes to retain the level of suspense needed. Too much longer and it would’ve felt bloated and lost its impact.
Devil is directed by John Erick Dowdle and written by Barry Nelson and M. Night Shyamalan