The Devil Goes Down, Directed by Nicholas Julius
The Devil Goes Down integrates themes of family relationship and intergenerational change within the framework of an ancient tale. In this exciting modern adaptation, a young man named Johnny is challenged to a game of basketball – by the devil. Accompanied by a lively music with fiddle and trumpet, Johnny (played by Stefan Baird) shoots hoops in an empty public court, practicing techniques as if there were someone playing with him, and without missing a shot.
Suddenly, Johnny’s dribbling ball echoes the ominous ringing sound of church bells that chime each time his ball hits the pavement. Three times this happens, and the animated music that accompanied him has disappeared. There is a different quality to the scene now, and instead of the spirited atmosphere that characterised his experience before, there is a deliberate emptiness to the sound that emerges once the music has really gone. In its place is a menacing visitor who watches Johnny from the sideline. He is no longer alone.
Nonchalantly tapping his cane to the ground with a resounding boom, the voyeur (played by Michael Kenneth Williams, of Boardwalk Empire and The Wire) hoots at Johnny to get his attention. Their eyes meet and the stranger speaks: ‘You’re pretty good’, he says. ‘I’m the best’, Johnny replies.
‘Care to prove it?’
He challenges Johnny to a game of basketball. ‘Please, allow me to introduce myself–’, adds the man, but Johnny interrupts him: ‘I already know who you are’. His distinctive red suit strongly contrasts with Johnny’s bright, white sports clothing (both designed by Tracey Phillips-Boone), and with dark sunglasses seated across his face, an ominous presence, and a menacing demeanor, it becomes clear who this stranger really is.
Then you also know the stakes. We’ll say my bag against your soul.
They stare at one another for a while, and Johnny warns him one more time, ‘but I told you, I’m the best’, to which his opponent replies: ‘We shall see. Won’t we?’
Johnny turns his back for just a moment to shoot another practice shot, and immediately discovers that the devil has shifted shape into a much younger person (Luis Da Silva Jr.) fitted in red basketball attire (complete with red socks and shoes) and menacing in his confidence. They play.
The cinematography of these action scenes (by Chris Scarafile) is polished in its active presentation of the game’s drama. The imagery is well-organized and lively, and the camera captures numerous angles of action within short periods of time. The shots are short, divided with sharp cuts that infuse a metaphorical fragmentation into the scene and parallel the suspense of the game. Director Nicholas Julius also plays with the game’s temporality with dynamic time lapses that slow and speed the action, emphasising the tension in these moments of wordless drama. The editing (by Christian Vogeler) is seamless.
The music (composed by Sean Beasley) provides another interesting outlet for artistic emphasis, and it succeeds in enhancing a unified narrative while simultaneously separating thematic elements. Each player has music that accompanies him when he plays well – when he is winning. Johnny’s music is lively, open, and decidedly American in quality. We hear a fiddle, a trumpet, and drums that align with the sentiment of Johnny’s casual practice, as well as his moments of triumph in the game. The devil has an electric techno that enlivens the game with its forward motion. These differences enhance the story by subtly shifting the atmosphere in which the action takes place. The calmer, almost playful qualities of the music that accompanies Johnny contrast sharply with the tenser, electric beat of the devil.
The historical undertones come to the fore when Johnny returns home. He finds his father (Marion Greene) and his grandfather (Michael Wright) playing chess on the porch, and they both react to Johnny’s bet.
Is he at it again?
See, I told you: that boy will never learn! Never learn!
‘I warned him’, Johnny replies. ‘I told him I was the best’. There is a sense that this situation is entirely familiar. The devil is part of life, and each of them – grandfather, father, and now Johnny – has encountered his tricks. On a side table in the living room, we discover a display of trophies: a golden fiddle and a golden trumpet. And beside them, Johnny places a golden basketball.
There is a playfulness in this familiarity with the devil – ‘that boy’ who ‘will never learn’ – but there is also cultural and historical significance to this story, which modernises the symbology of the devil while reflecting its history. The devil went down to Georgia – and he goes down. ■
Runtime: 10 minutes
Genres: Family, Short
Country: United States
Find out more
Learn more about this film and independent American filmmaker Nicholas Julius on the pages for The Devil Goes Down and Nicholas Julius in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and on Nicholas Julius’s website. Julius is an award-winning writer, director, and actor who has worked on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and published several works of fiction, including a novel and a collection of poetry. This is his third short film.
This critical review was commissioned and sponsored by the filmmaker.
Featured Image: A scene from ‘The Devil Goes Down’. The Devil Goes Down.