March 30, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Charles Murray
Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the dramatic film “The Devil You Know” features a cast of predominantly African American characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A recovering alcoholic, who’s trying to get his life back on track, struggles with finding out that his younger brother was involved in a home invasion that resulted in the murders of two people.
Culture Audience: “The Devil You Know” will appeal primarily to people interested in stories about African American families, but this dull misfire is not a well-made film, and it perpetuates many negative stereotypes of African American men.
Relentlessly dull and with a lot of cringeworthy acting, “The Devil You Know” tries to be a gritty drama, but the movie does nothing innovative or special. It also repeats negative, racist stereotypes that African American men are most likely to become criminals—even the ones who come from “good families.” It’s unfortunate that some filmmakers think they need to have a criminal angle in stories about African American families in order to sell a movie. There are plenty of African American people who come from families who don’t have criminal records. But you don’t see many movies made about these law-abiding African American families, because those stories don’t pander to racist people’s ideas that African American families are usually about crime, poverty or drugs.
Written and directed by Charles Murray, “The Devil You Know” has a lot of other problems besides wallowing in pathetic, negative stereotypes. It’s a crime drama that’s supposed to be suspenseful, but there is no suspense to be had when the movie reveals fairly on who the obvious villain is. A lot of time is wasted with monotonous scenes and conversations that drag everything out until the movie’s predictable ending. Most of the actors seem bored in their roles and give performances where they just recite their lines, with no noticeable emotional connection to their characters.
“The Devil You Know,” which takes place in Los Angeles, centers on a tight-knit African American family whose last name is Cowans. The family is headed by patriarch Lloyd Cowans (played by Glynn Turman) and his wife Della Cowans (played by Vanessa Bell Calloway), who have a healthy and loving relationship with each other. Lloyd and Della have four sons, whose ages range from their 50s to 30s. Lloyd and Della’s marriage is one of the few positive relationships shown in the movie, but that relationship is overshadowed by the criminal acts that cause trauma in the family.
Eldest sons Anthony Cowans (played by Curtiss Cook) and Marcus Cowans (played by Omar Epps) are in completely opposite points in their lives. Anthony, who is the most level-headed and stable of the four brothers, is steadily employed and happily married. Marcus, who is a bachelor, is a recovering alcoholic who’s trying to get his life back on track after spending time in rehab and in prison for an unnamed crime or crimes. Marcus has recently gotten a job as a city bus driver, thanks to Lloyd’s connections.
Youngest sons Drew Cowans (played by Will Catlett) and Terry Cowans (played by Vaughn W. Hebron) are also almost polar opposites too. Drew is a hothead who has been hiding the fact that he’s been unemployed for the past six months. Terry, the youngest son, is mild-mannered and easygoing. The movie skimps on the details about what anyone in this family, except for Marcus, does for a living.
“The Devil You Know” opens with three masked men invading the home of 58-year-old Nicholas Gervich (played by Jeph Loeb), his 52-year-old wife Wendy Gervich and their 17-year-old son Kyle Gervich (played by Conor Sherry), during an armed robbery that takes place at night. The horrific violence that happens in that household is not shown in the movie. However, the crime scene is shown in the aftermath, when police detective Joe McDonald (played by Michael Ealy) shows up with his team to investigate the murders and other crimes that took place in the Gervich home. Nicholas and Wendy have been shot dead. Kyle was brutally assaulted, but he survived. A number of items, including some cash, have been stolen from the Gervich home.
Because the trailer and synopsis for “The Devil You Know” already reveal that Drew was involved in this home invasion, it should come as no surprise who the home invaders are. Drew hangs out with two shady thugs named Al Edwards (played by Theo Rossi) and Stacy Griffin (played by B.J. Britt), who don’t do much in this movie but show up and try to look menacing. Al has a constant smirky grin and takes the lead when making threats, while Stacy is more likely to be a follower instead of a leader.
For someone who’s in charge of the investigation, Detective McDonald isn’t in the movie as much as viewers might think he should be. Ealy’s total screen time in “The Devil You Know” is about 15 minutes. And he’s doing the kind of performance where he might as well wear a T-shirt that says: “I’m just here for the paycheck.” Ealy and Epps both have the title of executive producer of “The Devil You Know,” but that doesn’t mean their acting in the movie is exemplary.
“The Devil You Know” has a not-very-interesting subplot of Marcus dating a hospital nurse named Eva Dylan (played by Erica Tazel), who met Marcus at a Cowans family dinner. It was a matchmaking set-up from Marcus’ sister-in-law Tisha Cowans (played by Keisha Epps), who is Anthony’s wife. Unfortunately, Omar Epps and Tazel (who acts in a stiff and robotic manner) have no believable chemistry together as romantic couple Marcus and Eva, who fall in love with each other. It probably would’ve been a better casting choice to have Keisha Epps, who is Omar Epps’ real-life wife, as Marcus’ love interest in the movie.
Viewers of this movie are stuck having to sit through bland scenes where Marcus and Eva have a very tedious romance with snoozeworthy conversations. Even though Eva tries to play hard-to-get when she first meets Marcus, she’s the one who makes the first move, by asking Marcus out on a dinner date. Over dinner at a restaurant, Eva says that she hasn’t dated anyone in two years, while Marcus says that he’s a “born-again virgin.” While they’re trading “celibates are us” stories, their waitress asks Marcus and Eva if they are celebrating something, because the waitress says that Marcus and Eva look like they’re in happy and in love. No, they look like two actors who aren’t doing a very good job of acting like they have romantic chemistry together.
The movie then fast-forwards three months later. Marcus and Eva are now dating, and they have settled comfortably in their relationship. Marcus takes the big step of giving Eva her own set of keys to his home. Eva tells Marcus, “If I take this, you ain’t getting rid of me.” Marcus replies, “That is the point.” Get used to a lot of simplistic and uninspired dialogue in “The Devil You Know,” because this movie is full of it.
It isn’t until about halfway through the movie that Marcus finds out about Drew’s involvement in the home invasion. While watching a TV news report about the home invasion, Marcus sees assault survivor Kyle being interviewed, and it’s mentioned that a distinctive baseball card collection was stolen from the Gervich family during this robbery. It’s the same baseball card collection that has recently come into Drew’s possession.
When Marcus confronts Drew about it, Drew says he got the card collection from Stacy, who told Drew that Stacy got the card collection from a “crackhead.” Knowing this is stolen property, Marcus calls in an anonymous tip to tell the police that Stacy and Al were probably the robbers/murderers in the deadly home invasion. But if Marcus’ plan was for Stacy and Al to get in trouble, the plan somewhat backfires, because Stacy and Al blame Drew for the robbery, assault and murders.
Drew is arrested and questioned by police, but he vehemently denies to Detective McDonald and the other cops that he had anything to do with the home invasion. Drew is let out on bail. Privately, Drew admits to Marcus that he was the getaway driver, but Drew insists that he had nothing to do with the murders, because Drew says that he was waiting in the car when the assault and murders happened. Considering that three men were seen entering the house, it’s already easy to figure out if Drew is telling the truth or not. And even without that big clue, the title of this movie says it all.
None of this is spoiler information, when so much of the plot is already revealed in the movie’s trailer. The only real mystery in the story is if Marcus and the rest of the family will continue to believe Drew, and if Drew will be punished for his part in the home invasion. “The Devil You Know” is so poorly written, the family is never seen discussing getting an attorney for Drew. Instead, there are several boring scenes that are the equivalent of handwringing, where family members wonder who among them snitched to the police.
There’s not much to the story about the Cowans family to give any background on them and what their family dynamics are. The movie just shows a series of scenes of family get-togethers that have an increasing number of arguments, as tensions begin to rise over Drew’s legal problems. Meanwhile, Al and Stacy are lurking around to make the expected threats to Drew, which can only lead to the inevitable result where not everyone in this trio of robbers will make it out alive by the end of the movie.
For a movie about a family drama to work well, there has to be more than just scenes of conversations strung together. The cast members have to look like they embody these characters in an authentic and believable way. And there has to be more to the story than just the tired, over-used stereotypes of an African American family dealing with someone in the family being accused of a serious crime.
“The Devil You Know” doesn’t care about showing who Marcus is beyond what the movie wants to define him as: someone who’s been involved in addiction and crime and trying to turn his life around for the better, but he gets pulled back into criminal entanglements because of his loser brother. Too many movies and TV shows have gone down that stereotypical route in ways that lack creativity. “The Devil You Know” is just another one of those forgettable movies.
In addition, the drab direction of “The Devil You Know” moves at such a sluggish pace, viewers will have a hard time keeping interest in a story where the characters are underdeveloped, there’s no real excitement or suspense, and the dialogue is bottom-of-the-barrel basic. If people want to see this movie for a lot of action scenes, such as shootouts or car chases, “The Devil You Know” comes up short in that area too. There’s some extreme melodrama thrown into the film in the last 15 minutes, but it’s not enough to save a movie that doesn’t deliver a story and characters that viewers can connect with in a meaningful way.
Lionsgate will release “The Devil You Know” in U.S. cinemas on April 1, 2022.