Movie Review: The Devil You Know
By Dwight Brown, NNPA Film Critic
Marcus and Drew are like Cain and Abel. Two brothers both in love and jealous. In the Bible, only Cain survived. Should either of them be worried?
Producer (Sons of Anarchy), writer (Luke Cage), director (things never said) Charles Murray’s playground is television. The limitations of his style of producing, writing and directing on the small screen may become apparent to theater audiences who expect the realization of big ideas on a big screen format. Moviegoers may be disappointed with the few locations, boring action scenes, and overabundant interior shots.
Either way, Murray paints a warm family portrait, featuring working-class people and respected actors and B-movie noir staples (e.g. Michael Ealy). The mildly intriguing storyline begins with an intriguing murder, continues with a highly personal tale of rehabilitation, a budding romance, betrayals, and a family unit that is challenged day after day.
The quarantine of Marcus Cowans (Omar Epps, Love & Basketball) has just been released from prison and is on the road to redemption. He attends AA meetings to get rid of his alcohol addiction. His father (Glynn Turman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) competed for a job as a bus driver for him. At a family dinner, his sister Tisha (Keisha Epps) offers him a blind date with a nice nurse named Eva (Erica Tazel). The two got along well.
Mom (Vanessa Bell Calloway), sister Loren (Ashley Williams), younger preacher brother Terry (Vaughn W. Hebron), older brother Anthony (Curtiss Cook) and sullen brother Drew (William Catlett, The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray) support it. He is loved. The rest is up to him.
Meanwhile, Drew, whose life seemed much more stable than Marcus’, hung out with some dodgy guys. Stacey (BJ Britt, Agents of SHIELD) and Al (Theo Rossi, Sons of Anarchy) run a local barber shop and live a life of crime. It’s almost like Marcus and Drew switch characters. One out of trouble, the other in.
The Cowans are generic but friendly people. Most are on the straight and narrow, a few are finicky, and this imperfection makes them even easier to understand. The four-brother setup might be two too many. Anthony and Terry seem superfluous. Drew and Marcus are enough. And if their roles had been fully developed, with more intense rivalry and fierce competition for their father’s attention, the drama presented would be biblical and could have elevated this project to a movie worthy of theatrical release.
Turman is well suited to portray the loving patriarch of the family, as only an actor of his caliber could. Too bad the script didn’t make him an overbearing father dominating his two sons – that would have added an edge. Halloway brings a natural tone to her role as a mom. Jovial, insistent, nurturing, it’s almost as if you know her. The rest of the cast of supporting family members fade into the background.
Britt and Rossi are just mean enough to be hardened sociopaths, and Tazel’s kindness and understanding is affecting. Catlett increases his envy and resentment to monstrous proportions as the film progresses. Epps has established a long and respected career as everyone’s quintessential actor. His characters tend to be approachable even if imperfect. He is so friendly.
Indescribable technical elements also contribute to the film’s indistinct feel. Nothing stands out. Not the cinematography (Ludovica Isiddori), production design (Adriana Serrano), costumes (Makysha Barksdale), editing (Geofrey Hildrew, Scott Pellet) or musical score.
Murray’s direction and writing are safe and not as risque as one would hope. The violence is tamed, the love scenes rated G, the swear words are few. There’s barely enough drama for a soap opera. Just enough crime for one Law and order episode. However, it infuses spiritual overtones and its take on romance is equally compelling: Eva: “I kind of gave up on the brothers who were trying to get together. But now I realize we’re all trying to pull ourselves together.
Cable or streaming programming can be more the devil you know‘s future than moviegoers who flock to the cineplex for a view. Too bad the Cain and Abel aspects of this fable didn’t go further. Pity Drew wasn’t a more evil antagonist. Where is the real devil when you need him?
The film began hitting theaters on April 1.