Oct. 6th, 2010 07:05 pm
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[personal profile] missingopossum
Cinema visit: Devil

This is basically a locked room drama – I'll be discussing the film in its entirety so if knowing how it all plays out (whodunnit, in short. Or at least whowuzit?) is going to bother you then pass along!

Ok, so the premise is that there's five people trapped in a broke-down lift and one of them is the devil. This is just a little contrived although not too badly so; there's a narrator's framing story of how his mother always used to say that the devil would sometimes come in person for the soul of a suicide, and at such times there might be a "devil's meeting" of various guilty or evil people. This device was just a touch too clunky for my taste; it wasn't quite played elegantly enough to come across as real fireside tales and as such ended up coming across as a little too handy, a little too tailored to create this really cool set up rather than being timeless or universal.

As to the actual execution of the idea, it's actually quite tightly and tensely done; much of the action is focused on the five folk in the lift with cuts to the control room where there's a police officer functioning as a main POV character, and as mentioned above a very religious gentleman who provides context in the form of stories his mother told him. It loses a little of the claustrophobic atmosphere by spending quite a lot of time focused on the external view into the lift, and on the various rescue attempts. I can see why; it would certainly be rather challenging to create an engaging mainstream film and retain the relatively static locked-room visual theme. The Disappearance Of Alice Creed made an *amazing * job of the general theme of a small number of people stuck with each other in one location – but what works for a small indie production isn't necessarily going to fly in Hollywood.

Of course, you spend a lot of time wondering which (if any) of the passengers in the lift are the devil. In short the options were it being actually one of the five; one of the observers; the devil being able to move between various people or there turning out to be no devil after all. I'm going to spend a bit of time looking at the ways the viewer was supposed to incline at any one point – so once again if you don't want to know, stop reading!


The five in the lift were a security guard belonging to the building, a young lad in smart but non-professional interview clothes, a guy in a sharp but tacky estate-agent's suit, a well-presented young lady in extremely smart clothes and an older woman looking as though she were in the building as customer rather than employee. Each had their invitations to suspicion, some based in story and some playing (or trying to, at any rate) the audience's assumptions about the characters.

These invitations to suspicion were a large part of the fun of the film as far as I was concerned. The young lad's first establishing shot showed him with looking sinisister with hooded face, so I assume that would be his. The guy in the suit was immediately introduced as smarmy and obsequious, so his invitation to suspicion would be the "devil as salesman" trope. The young woman was immediately suggested as being arrogant, in trying to bypass the building's sign-in procedure with a brisk "but you all know me here" and once in the lift the audience was clearly being invited to form assumptions about attractive, forthright women being potentially dangerous. Moving swiftly on from this *lovely * bit of stereotyping in action, the older woman was first pictured in the foyer looking lost; however once the lift jammed she was the first character to start bitter, negative comments on the situation; acting as a "twist" in the words applied to another character later on.

Now, the establishing sequence for the security guard is going to take a little longer to discuss. The policeman is called in when the young woman is injured and he pitches immediately upon the security guard as the likely suspect; he's big and bulky, and I suspect that his being black was also part of that. I suspect that the audience are also supposed to have had some sort of negative reaction to him but if so then that passed me by; he was the only one of them that I didn't pick up on an "it's him/her!" establishing shot and as such I only considered him in passing; after his (inevitable) criminal record was revealed I actually thought there might end up being some sort of play on him being a truly repentant or some such; as it turns out I wasn't far off spotting a story element but *way * off-beam with the situation and character involved. In short, I very much get the feeling that the security guard, like the young woman, is intended to act on the audience's prejudices and preconceptions. Since neither of them turn out to be the devil then I suspect that the joke is more on the viewer – but I'm a little uncertain as to how far I like the tactic.

So much for the introduction of the characters. As the film progressed the to me most obvious (and thus least likely) candidate died first, followed by my early favourite and then the policeman's favourite; in other words the salesman went first, followed by the old woman and then the security guard. At various points the young man was presented as the favourite candidate, having (apparently) dodged the sign-in, then hiding a bag of tools capable of sabotaging the lift, and lastly because he admitted to having been a soldier. Similarly, the young woman was presented as a "twist", in the young man's words and thus kept in the race as a possibility. One of my favourite moments was the "and then there were two" moment when the lights came back up after that third death. The young woman and the young man looked at each other for a moment and both grab weapons; as it turns out they each know that they didn't commit the last murder and thus conclude it must be the other. I wasn't at all convinced that it was either of them but I wasn't sure therefore what the solution was.

It turned out to be the exceedingly negative old woman after all; I'm afraid I did not consider the possibility that one of the corpses might not be a corpse after all. Me, I missed it completely. I thought at first that the old woman was going to be the devil, because her negative remarks very much set the tone for the group and situation. But I rejected that theory quite early on, as being a bit too obvious – my preferred theory for most of the film was that one of the observers would turn out to be the devil. The religious gentleman was a suspect, simply because I rather like unreliable narrator and if not him then anyone else other than the policeman. The narrator made it quite clear that the devil likes to act to an audience, and I liked the idea that the policeman was in some way a focus of the devil's attention, possibly following his character's theme of unbelief and faith tested and so on, and that he would possibly be forced to make hard choices about what happened in the lift or some such. But no. The devil was in fact in the lift all along.


Now at this point the film review proper begins to wander off into thoughts about its themes. Once again be warned – but this time beware of digressions rather than spoilers!

I am somewhat unreligious (to say the least) so I was unsypathetic to some of the religious views on display. The conclusion in particular annoyed me; character A forgives character B his actions and the voice-over of the religious narrator frames this scene with words to the effect of “of course where the devil exists god does also.” There are two reasons why I roll my eyes at this – firstly because this is something of a non sequitur. How, exactly, does the ability of one human to forgive demonstrate the existence of gods? I'm pretty sure that the answer involves some sophistry about gods creating the ability to forgive – but since they also created the abilities to hate, hurt and bear grudges this seems a little circular. Or possibly the answer is supposed to be that all good things come from gods? I'm not really certain how a religious audience was expected to react to this – but it was incredibly clunky for me.

And the second reason for my eye-rolling at the “devil's existence proves god's existence” line of reasoning actually ends up providing an unintentionally interesting context. As I say, I'm not religious. The whole concept of personified deities and so on is quite alien to my world view so I find the whole idea of the literal existence of opposed entities duelling it out over the souls and / or bodies or mankind nothing short of hilarious.

It has long been my contention that the traditional western conception of devil/god represents a sort of bastardised misunderstanding of how duality works; in short setting up a concept of black and white binary opposites rather than a spectrum of shades of grey. And furthermore there's the small theological issue of the existence of evil, personified or otherwise. I'm with Epicurus (or whoever actually said it, at any rate):

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

This goes some way towards capturing my thoughts on the matter – if you feel the need to believe in a devil-figure then that reflects upon the god you believe in. Is he in some way bound to support the existence of evil? Bound by whom or what? Or (and this is my preferred take) is it the case that might as ever makes right and the extremely powerful being known as god does have a something of a malevolent streak?

Me, I like the the idea that the entities presented in the film as “devil” and “god” are actually two of a kind and simply continually challenging each other to "come outside and have a go if you think you're hard enough." Neither is “good” nor “bad” - they're just opposed to each other. It makes for a more interesting story for me if you replace the moralistic tone of "the devil will come and get you if you're bad" with the much more dark and random "the devil will come and get you if he feels like it. And god'll do just the same if *he * feels like it." I think a darker ending rather than one intended to be comforting would have worked better for me.
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Missing Opossum

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