One of the reasons film genres and subgenres endure is their adaptiveness. Maria Govan’s Play the Devil, for instance, is in many ways a recognizable, off the shelf psychosexual thriller. Yet, by setting it where she does and tweaking the sexual orientations of the characters from the norm, she is able to add in an exploration of class, religion and homosexuality in Trinidad and Tobago. The end result never quite quickens the pulse like it’s meant to but the ambition on display is noble.
Petrice Jones stars as Gregory, a gifted young man living with his grandmother and older brother in the poor, exurban hills outside of the city. He is the family’s hope, with his good grades placing him in prime position of a scholarship to study medicine outside of the country. When a classmate’s father (Gareth Jenkins) takes an intense interest in Gregory, the fallout threatens to ruin those chances and expose Gregory’s own secrets.
No one in the film ever describes Gregory as “gay” or “homosexual”; so closeted and withdrawn is he that those terms wouldn’t feel complete when applied to him. At first, we’re not even sure he’s aware of what Jenkins’ James has on his mind. Soon, though, we see him lying to his friends and family, cluing us in that he’s neither as naive or as unwilling as we may have thought.
Jenkins’ performance is quiet and showy in just the right amounts. He’s so soft and gentle that his menace is difficult to pin down, even if we process his behaviors as predatory from his very first scene. You could see John Malkovich in this role. Eventually, Gregory turns from an impassiveness that could be taken for complicity to outright rejecting James’ advances, yet Jenkins modulates his presence and line readings almost imperceptibly.
Govan’s entire aesthetic approach is in the same mode as Jenkins’ performances. With its long, dawn-hued takes and quiet conversations, the best word to describe Play the Devil would be “patient.” Perhaps, though, it’s a little too patient. The vice should be tightening around our hearts like it is James’ but, if it’s doing so, it’s so subtle that we don’t even notice.