I was perpetually on the verge of allowing myself to enjoy the minor indie feature Play the Devil but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen the film before, except set in a different locale. Then it struck me: Play the Devil is essentially a queer retelling of the 2015 JLo “thriller” The Boy Next Door, except with most of that film’s campy humor & sex surgically removed. Besides reframing that one night stand-turned-stalker thriller within a same-sex dynamic & moving its location from the United States to Trinidad, the major difference is its central abusive romance is which character is asked to play the villain. In The Boy Next Door, Jennifer Lopez has sex with a teenage neighbor who becomes her tormentor once she calls off the affair. In Play the Devil, it’s the adult participant who’s tasked to play the villain, which changes the dynamic just as much as the added queer context. Unfortunately, I can’t say either change was especially beneficial to the film as an entertainment, as it both ruined the fun of the premise & made the film’s queer identity politics muddled & unintentionally uncomfortable.
A Trinidad high school student is stuck between his ambitions to pursue art in either drama or photography and his grandmother’s desire for him to attend med school. With the economic rut of his home life & his best friend’s burgeoning career in petty crime weighing heavily on his mind, he faces a coming of age identity crisis that gradually becomes intertwined with a struggle to negotiate a balance between his in-the-closet queerness and societal expectations of adult masculinity. All of this sexual & economic anxiety makes our troubled protagonist the perfect prey for a wealthy, married businessman who wishes to take him on a sexual concubine. Scared by the implications of this potential role as a wealthy man’s sugarbaby, he only allows himself one sexual encounter before backing away in fear. The predatory older man won’t take “no” for an answer and pursues the young student anyway, practically twirling his mustache as he stalks the poor kid as an over-the-top, effete personification of queer desire. Their dynamic is effectively uncomfortable, but not self-aware enough to justify its potential homophobia, especially as it barrels towards an inevitably violent climax.
The climactic sequence of Play the Devil is a gorgeous catharsis that’s so stunning it almost forgives the piss-poor acting & boneheaded homophobia of the movie’s villain. During a Carnival ritual known as “The Dance of the Blue Devil,” locals smear their bodies with blue & gold paint and rhythmically scream out the frustrations our protagonist has been bottling inside the entire film. The imagery of this emotional release and the tranquil forest sounds of men later washing off their paint under a waterfall in its denouement is undeniably powerful. I can’t claim that much else besides the brightly painted houses & intense Natural backdrops of the film’s Trinidad setting are as successful as the Carnival sequence. Play the Devil is effective in its evocation of a spiritual & cultural atmosphere, but the story it manages to tell within that frame is a disjointed mess. I assume that the movie was aiming to be a poignant coming of age drama and not the less fun The Boy Next Door remake with #problematic queer subtext in accidentally stumbled into, which is a total shame. The Carnival imagery almost makes up for it, but not quite enough to turn the tide. At least it can boast that it features the absolute worst villainous performance of the year; there’s a kind of honor in that dishonorable distinction.