Review by Dan Skip Allen
Charles Murray is a writer-director known for projects such as Luke Cage, Things Never Said, and A Cold Hard Truth, all television shows and movies focusing on the urban family and crime experience. His latest film, The Devil You Know, is another urban crime drama. He seems to know this world pretty well, but he has more invested in this story.
Marquis Cowans (Omar Epps) is a recovering alcoholic who is part of a big African-American family. He starts to get his life right when he meets a new girl (Erica Tazel, Justified) and gets a job as a bus driver. While at a family gathering, his brother Drew Cowans (William Catlett) gets drunk, and he helps him home. While there, he shows him a book full of baseball cards he got from a friend. When he watches the news, he sees the cards were involved in a murder/burglary. This puts him in a difficult situation.
This film has a very dramatic storyline involving a family dynamic. This family has dealt with a lot of trauma over the years. This situation is just another in a long line of difficulties they have had to deal with. Like most families, the drama follows them around. Murray leans in on his work experience with this genre to create a world of hardships for this family. He also used his own family experiences to help tell this story. It's a pretty typical storyline for this genre of film.
The cast is full of actors and actresses that have been in these types of films before. Michael Ealy (The Intruder, Fatale) plays a police detective trying to figure out what's going on with the case. He's caught in the middle between Epps and Catlett's characters and another case he's working on. Ealy has proven that he's a capable actor in these types of roles over the decades. Glynn Turman (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) plays Epos and Catlett's character's father. He's involved in the drama of the situation, and it doesn't do his health any good. Theo Rossi (Army of the Dead, Luke Cage) is one of Catlett's character's friends. He may have to do with everything Ealy's detective is investigating. The entire cast does an adequate job in this film.
As far as crime stories go, this is a pretty rudimentary story. Once you get past the family dynamic, it's pretty straightforward. How the writer/director Murray gets from point a to point z is interesting but not too hard to figure out if you are watching along with the film pretty closely. The baseball cards are a MacGuffin that ties everything together. The family drama is just a means to an end for the filmmaker. When you boil it down to the brass tax, it's not a complex story. This is just an excuse to make this film when it comes down to it. Murray puts a lot of himself and his life into this film.
The film had a good look to it. The cinematography and score were both excellent. The major problem I had with the film was its length. Once I figured out what was going on with the characters and the story, it wasn't too long before I felt bored in this world. Various family gatherings and meetings at a hospital for different family emergencies stretched this film's running time to about two hours. That was too long because the mystery of the case was solved in my eyes. The filmmaker kept having these conversations between characters to lengthen the story for some unknown reason. It wasn't necessary. This film should have been a half-hour shorter.
The Devil You Know is a film that tries to turn brother against brother like in the Bible. It suggests that the devil you know is better than the devil you don't but then doesn't use that theory to help tell the story better. It gets bogged down in too many interpersonal conversations about needless things instead of getting to the story's heart. The acting and look of the film are all pretty good, but the lengths are what drag the movie to a crawl at times. This film would have been better if it were about a half-hour shorter, and it needed editing to help tell a tighter story in the end.
The Devil You Know hits theaters on April 1.