The Devil You Know is inspired by the Biblical quote “Am I my brother's keeper?” which is shown onscreen at one point. Omar Epps plays the keeper. He's Marcus Cowans, an ex-convict trying to turn his life around. That includes attending AA meetings to stay sober. Marcus comes from a large family. Most of his siblings are successful, but one of them, Drew (William Catlett), has seen his fortunes fall. Drew comments that his life is falling apart at the same time that Marcus's is coming together.
Marcus learns that Drew may have been peripherally connected to a local home invasion that left two people dead and a teenage boy badly beaten. News reports say a book of valuable sports cards was taken from the home, and that book is in Drew's apartment. He claims to be holding it for Al (Theo Rossi) and Stacy (B.J. Britt), low-level criminals who run a barbershop in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, weary-yet-determined cop Joe McDonald (Michael Ealy) is poking around, looking for connections. Marcus has to decide whether to risk implicating his brother by fingering Al and Stacy.
Compounding the pressure of this decision is his new relationship with Eva (Erica Tazel). He's trying to be the kind of moral man she deserves. And his parents, Lloyd (Glynn Turman) and Della (Vanessa Bell Calloway), certainly aren't going to respond well if Drew gets in any legal trouble. When Marcus starts to suspect Drew is downplaying the extent of his involvement, the scenario gets even trickier.
The Devil You Know has a number of good qualities working in its favor. Marcus's dilemma is dramatically compelling, taking advantage of basic “what's right, what's wrong” questions we can all relate to. You may find yourself pondering what you would do in his shoes. Epps is excellent in the role, using subtlety to convey the internal struggle between wanting to do the correct thing and wanting to protect his brother. Catlett is also strong as Drew, effectively showing the downward trajectory his character is on. Theo Rossi (who was so good in this year's Sundance hit Emily the Criminal) makes a fearsome presence as Al, thereby upping the stakes.
Despite those positives, the movie is ultimately undone by pacing issues. The Devil You Know never achieves the kind of snap a story like this requires to fully hook us. Writer/director Charles Murray has a tendency to repeat information. A scene will show us something, and then a subsequent scene will have a character describing what we've already witnessed. Other scenes are completely redundant, adding nothing to the plot and therefore slowing its momentum. If you take out all the stuff that's repeated and a few of the lengthy family sequences, Marcus's situation would have more urgency. A confusing plot point in the final scene needed better explanation, too.
There's a good movie in here somewhere. Murray never quite finds it. It's a real shame because The Devil You Know is perpetually on the verge of becoming riveting. The theme, the actors, and the concept are all on target. Only the execution is lacking. Unfortunately, that proves enough to pull the film down.
out of four
The Devil You Know is rated R for language throughout, some violence and sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.