Producers: Roy Scott MacFarland, Jackie J. Stone, Marc Danon and Charles Murray   Director: Charles Murray   Screenplay: Charles Murray   Cast: Omar Epps, Will Catlett, Glynn Turman, Curtiss Cook, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Erica Tazel, Vaughn W. Hebron, Michael Beach, B.J. Britt, Keisha Epps, Ashley Williams, Tami Mac, Murray Gray, Jeph Loeb, Conor Sherry, Sarah Minnich, Theo Rossi and Michael Ealy   Distributor: Lionsgate

Grade: C-

An uneasy combination of family friction and crime drama further hobbled by problems of logic and pacing, Charles Murray’s “The Devil You Know” features a nuanced lead turn by Omar Epps but variable acting from the rest of its cast.

Epps plays Marcus Cowans, a prison parolee and recovering alcoholic welcomed back into the large Los Angeles brood headed by his father Lloyd (Glynn Turman) and mother Della (Vanessa Bell Calloway).  He often comes the homestead to dinner with his brothers Anthony (Curtiss Cook), Terry (Vaughn W. Hebron) and Drew (Will Catlett), and their sisters Tisha (Keisha Epps) and Loren (Ashley Williams). 

All the children appear to be doing reasonably well—Terry, for example is a promising young preacher whose skill in the pulpit is the focus of one scene—except for Marcus and Drew, who seems at loose ends, hanging around the barbershop run by neighborhood toughs Stacy (B.J. Britt) and Al (Theo Rossi).  But Lloyd has arranged a job driving a bus for Marcus, who’s determined to turn his life around, and plotting to bring him increased stability, Tisha brings Eva Dylan (Erica Tazel), a nurse, to one of the dinners, hoping to spark a romance.  Her plan succeeds: Marcus and Eva are soon an item.

What will tear the Cowans apart is a crime portrayed in the movie’s prologue: a home invasion in which a couple is killed and their teen son Kyle (Conor Sherry) so severely beaten that he’s left in a coma.  Joe McDonald (Michael Ealy), the detective assigned the case, is determined to bring the perpetrators to justice, but has few clues to go on.

One of them, however, is a binder of rare baseball cards stolen from the home, and when one night Marcus drives a drunken Drew back to his place, he finds it on his brother’s coffee table.  Drew swears he’s just keeping it for Stacy, who says he bought it from a junkie.  But Marcus suspects that’s not the whole truth, and when Kyle awakens and the case fills the airwaves again, he’s torn over what to do.  He was treated badly by the cops and the legal system, and feels obligated to protect his brother from getting railroaded too; and yet he’s haunted by the brutality of the crime and the fear that Drew might have been involved in it along with Stacy and Al.

His solution is to place an anonymous call to Joe fingering the latter two, which inevitably also casts suspicion on Drew and leads to plot turns—a heart attack, a shooting, a stabbing, and an inevitable bump in the romance between Marcus and Eva—that are decidedly melodramatic.  But they alternate with long, turgid dialogue scenes, like those in which McDonald—who, despite the evidence against Drew, never bothers to secure a search warrant for his apartment, where the loot from the robbery is apparently stored—repeatedly badgers Marcus to admit that he’s the source of the allegations; the last of these seems to go on forever.  The result is a film that feels alternately flaccid and overwrought.

Throughout, Epps does his best to express Marcus’ continued pain and ambivalence about how to do the right thing while not destroying his family.  He’s impressive even as the movie as a whole becomes less and less so.  Apart from Tazel, who like Epps nicely reflects the conflict within the character, the rest of the cast fares less well.  Many are merely bland, but some go overboard.  Rossi is positively maniacal as trigger-happy Al, and even veteran Turman is unrestrained.  Nor is the technical side of things appreciably better.  Adriana Serrano’s production design and Ludovica Isidori’s cinematography are indifferent, the editing by Geofrey Hildrew and Scott Pellet frequently sluggish and Chris Joyner’s score nondescript. 

“The Devil You Know” has high ambitions, but it fails to achieve them.