Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Devil’s Business (2011)

Their boss Bruno (Harry Miller) has sent experienced contract killer Pinner (Billy Clarke) and young and foolish would-be tough Cully (Jack Gordon) to the home of one Mister Kist (Jonathan Hansler) for a hit, for Kist has something in his possession that belongs to Bruno. The killers just need to wait in Kist’s empty house until he gets back from the opera, and then do their deed.

However, something is very wrong about Kist’s house. It’s not just a certain mood of dread that provokes even someone as distanced as Pinner to start telling spooky stories from his past. There are noises an empty house shouldn’t make, and when checking the garage, Pinner and Cully discover some bloody occult conjuration paraphernalia and a dead baby. On the latter discovery, Cully freaks out completely, but even the unflappable seeming Pinner is shaken. Still, the job is the job – and Bruno certainly not a very understanding boss – so Pinner quickly does what he has come to do when Kist finally arrives.

That, you’d think, would be that, but Kist’s dead body disappears, leaving a couple of killers in a rather different kind of trouble than they are prepared for when increasingly less natural things start happening.

Sean Hogan’s The Devil’s Business is a wonderful example of the quality some independent horror directors from the British Isles achieve in their films, films generally without the love for cheap irony and mumblecore gestures that – for my tastes – mar too many – fortunately not all - comparable productions from the USA.

Hogan’s film in particular is in possession of a sense of irony, of course, but it’s of the dramatic kind, not the smug know-it-all type that can’t bother to take itself seriously one. This isn’t a film about other movies but a clever and decidedly creepy character piece about two men getting increasingly out of their depth (though you could argue Cully never was in it), only realizing too late they aren’t actually cut out for the killing business, or that their hypocritical idea of duty and the sins of their pasts will lead them to their doom, respectively.

Hogan films this tale with an easy hand for building a creepy mood out of darkened rooms and strong acting performances, leaving the arrival of the more overt supernatural stuff for quite some while, instead focusing on his two main characters, their increasing realization they aren’t having a normal day on the job elegantly pulling the audience along with them. Once the obvious supernatural arrives, it’s already too late for Cully and Pinner, the former trapped by his inexperience, the latter by a combination of guilt he can’t admit to himself and a perverse sense of duty.

The Devil’s Business clearly was shot on a low budget, so a viewer shouldn’t expect many spectacular special effects, but what’s there is convincing and a believable part of the particular occult world the film suggests, with nothing that seems out of place. Or should I say nothing that seems out of place in the wrong way? The acting is really fine, Clarke in particular turns out to be close to perfect in his role, embodying the distance Pinner attempts to keep to any signs of his own humanity, as well as his slow rediscovery of the same (that won’t save him, of course) with just the right amount of subtlety.

There’s a sense of focus on display by everyone involved that makes The Devil’s Business particularly effective – there’s no wasted scene, no wasted gesture, everything in this pleasantly short (which is to say, just the right length for its plot) film has meaning and import, every moment is either used to suggest the inevitable doom hanging over the characters, or to show in short, sharp brush strokes the traits that make these two men as doomed as they are. That the film also does a very neat and clever job to connect very British (at least to my eyes and ears) gangster culture and a just as British concept of occult horror nearly seems beside the point here but certainly isn’t something I’m going to complain about.

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