JFR 021 | The Devil's Advocate (1997)
Updated: Jan 29, 2022
The blending of legal epic and biblical melodrama is a promising concept, but it feels strangely undercooked in Director Taylor Hackford’s adaptation of The Devil’s Advocate (1997), based on the novel by Andrew Neiderman. The time spent in the courtroom is invariably given over to wordless reveals or parlour tricks, designed to emphasise the burgeoning supernatural platform upon which Kevin Lomax - Keanu Reeves’ cocksure ‘lawyer’ - plies his trade. At the time of this film’s release, Reeves was only two years shy of The Matrix (1999), and his reinvention as Neo; the messianic figure that would become his most convincing, signature role. Alas in The Devil’s Advocate, Reeves’ flirtation with ambiguity is somewhat less convincing.
Lomax comes across as (alternatively) an oblivious prat, or a befuddled fool, with occasional whiffs of self-awareness. This heady emotional mixture is largely mandated by the plot, and though ‘range’ is definitely too strong a word, the ever-likeable Keanu exerts himself with gusto, and he is intermittently convincing. Five years previously, Gary Oldman was using Reeves to pick his teeth, whist awaiting the arrival of the proper thespians. In The Devil’s Advocate, he is disjointed as opposed to cringeworthy, and this is a blessed mark of progress. The initial reveal of Lomax - the undefeated wunderkind - and his moral conundrum is actually very intriguing. The resultant thrashing he gives in cross-examination (fully aware that his client is as guilty as sin) represents Keanu Reeves at the pinnacle of his dramatic powers, and serves to texture the Lomax character more effectively than at any other point during the film’s bloated running time.
It’s almost enough to make you wonder what might have been, had the course been stayed with more legitimate legal fare, but this was never the film’s intention. The Devil’s Advocate can’t wait to start beating you about the head with its occult conceit. This is for the express purpose of setting the stage for Al Pacino - the man they ‘never see coming’ - and his bastard child of Marlowe’s Mephistopheles and Satan in the Garden of Gethsemane: the subtly-named John Milton. From the moment he arrives on screen, the film is unapologetically stolen by a rampant Pacino.
Granted the canvas of New York City - compared to the biblical ‘Babylon’, in another of the film’s attempts to disembowel you with its subtlety - Pacino weaves a vivid tapestry. He is oceans of fun as he dances around the city, flaunting his charismatic power over all mankind. One minute he’s a high-powered sexual dynamo, the next he’s a streetwise polyglot. The Milton character is intended to be the glue that binds, but he is tonally inconsistent, and comes across as a bizarre merging of the real Milton’s Lucifer, and David Bowie during his tight trousers phase. He has some admittedly glorious dialogue and one-liners, but you’d have to be blind to miss the inevitability of his origins.
The revelation of his familial link to Lomax is equally dunderheaded, and not present in the original novel. It seems the filmmakers were so dazzled by Pacino’s rambunctious demeanour that they neglected to observe the finer details. Rather than telling the story of Kevin Lomax, the film soon seeks to bounce from one Milton monologue to the next. Thanks to the brilliance of Pacino this is not end of the world - far from it - but the film would have you believe that the very same world is at stake, and for all Milton’s yelling and dramatic loosening of clothing, this doesn’t ultimately convince.
The film wants you to accept the contention of a Faustian bargain, willingly offered by Milton and accepted by Lomax. Kevin has supposedly ‘chosen’ his fate, and continues to ‘choose’ at various points, but why? What exactly does he gain? Greater fame in a bigger city; professional prestige and… not much else. He’s offered an exquisite-looking lady - the delectable Connie Nielsen - but he already has a beautiful wife. Far from reigning in Heaven or Hell, he is on Earth, doing his job. Not enough is done to articulate the process of temptation, and any further development is curtailed by questions of actorly prioritisation, and Keanu Reeves’ inevitable inadequacies. He certainly looks the part, but even at his best he seems slightly cowed and detached from proceedings, and in more character-based dramas, this is a problem.
The Devil’s Advocate provided a breakthrough role for Charlize Theron (as Kevin’s wife, Mary Ann Lomax) and she does the very best with what she’s given. There is some chemistry between her and Reeves, but this is blown out of the water in just one scene between her and Pacino. Theron does a fine job of conveying the physical and mental torture she experiences at Milton’s hands, but this only serves to encapsulate the film’s tonal inconsistency. The trauma of Mary Ann gives us Milton at his most demonic, and though the violence is mostly implied, the film needed more instances of this outright evil. Instead, as we reach the apex of demonic cruelty, the film prevaricates. We are shown Milton, sporting a cheesy leer as he places his finger in Holy Water, causing it to apparently boil. So we have the continued, systematic rape and torture of an innocent woman, alongside a glorified children’s party trick. That is a frankly bizarre and uncomfortable juxtaposition.
The film concludes with an infamous final monologue from Milton, and a defining choice. This seemingly rewarding finale is instantly undermined by a clunky and unoriginal reset. It is revealed that despite the choice he willingly makes, Lomax isn’t redeemed, just reprieved. The Devil can (and will) keep plugging away until he presumably ‘wins’, whatever the hell (pun intended) that means. This clumsy ending thus eliminates any true concept of ‘choice’, and the film’s supposed moral and thematic core is invalidated. This is a peculiar and stupid choice, that smacks of shock value, and removes any lingering possibility of the film as a properly serious entity.
The Devil’s Advocate is pleasing to the eye, quite often amusing and occasionally caresses the boundaries of the profound, but it is unworthy of the materials it seeks to be informed by, and succeeds mostly on the basis of one flamboyant performance. It seems like such an obvious thing to say, but some films are assuredly good and others are definitely bad. You can watch a ‘good’ film and be convinced of its excellence, or take in a ‘bad’ movie and be repulsed by its crapulence. Then there are motion pictures such as this one. The Devil’s Advocate is a veritable halfway house: by no means a terrible film, nor a masterpiece that will prompt you to genuflect in its presence. It merely dwells in its own company, content that it’s serving some sort of purpose, and asks very few challenging questions of itself or the audience.
Lawyers have long been dramatic fodder in cinema. For a while in the 1990s, it seemed like every other film release was an earnest adaptation of a John Grisham courtroom drama. The Devil’s Advocate – also adapted from a literary source (a novel by Andrew Neiderman) – takes the ‘good vs. evil’ dynamic inherent in the genre and plays out as a not-so-subtle, and frequently gratuitous, morality tale in the Faustian tradition, alluding to 'Paradise Lost' and 'Dante’s Inferno' along the way. The ‘hotshot’ lawyer here is Kevin Lomax, in an excellent turn from Keanu Reeves. Happily married to his supportive wife Mary Ann (a powerful early role for Charlize Theron), Lomax is at the top of his game when approached by a New York lawyer firm run by the enigmatic and charming John Milton (Al Pacino). It is not long before things start to derail for Lomax, as he gets sucked into Milton's less-than-savoury world, with the usual promises of riches and glory, and starts to neglect his wife, who spirals into psychosis with devastating consequences. Lomax has unwittingly signed a deal with the Devil himself, and literally gets more than he bargained for. Pacino is typically gruff and dynamic, giving off a Jack Nicholson-in-The-Witches-of-Eastwick vibe. The title of the film rather dictates that Milton is not who he seems and that we shouldn’t trust him, but then there's the matter of his intense, soul-searching stare and the allusions to his true identity, hidden in plain sight. At various points, Milton refers to himself as the “master of the universe”, and someone who “kills with kindness”. He observes that “they don't see me coming.” This is true of the main protagonist. If Lomax had been paying attention, he would have noticed the warning signs much earlier. It's not so much dramatic irony that the audience have figured it out long before the lead character does, as full on blind ignorance and sheer arrogant vanity. And Milton loves a bit of vanity. Charlize Theron handles Mary Ann’s mental breakdown superbly. Her story is a particularly tragic one as, though much is made of the idea of ‘free will’, Mary Ann is perhaps the only character whose freedom is ultimately taken completely away from her. Lonely and afraid, suffering hallucinations and confusion, her disorientation over what is fantasy and what is reality is really quite brutal. It's a brilliant performance, but somehow the issues dealt with sit awkwardly with the tone of the rest of the film. The juxtaposition between the hard-hitting nature of Mary Ann's distress and Pacino pulling out all the theatrical stops, dining out on the scenery in the final histrionic showdown, leaves a rather sour taste. Hollywood veteran Taylor Hackford brings an experienced eye to proceedings, but tonally, the film struggles to find a successful balance between moralistic courtroom drama and dark, twisted fantasy. And therein lays the problem: The Devil's Advocate does not quite know how to present itself. The truth is, I don't quite know what I think of The Devil's Advocate. To begin with, it looks like it will be a surprisingly subtle examination of how one’s self-absorption and egotism, if left unchecked, can lead to a fall, cleverly prefigured by Milton tempting Lomax on the roof of a high-rise building, all but saying “this can be yours if you worship me.” The devil is certainly in the details as Milton inveigles his way into Lomax’s life with cunning, flattery and deception. That stuff is all well developed. However, the narrative misses an opportunity in the character of Lomax’s fundamentalist Christian mother Alice (Judith Ivey). She is merely a plot device to issue warnings such as comparing New York to Babylon (a “dwelling place of demons”) which, naturally, her son does not heed, and then divulge a shattering secret which has potentially profound implications which are not sufficiently explored, and leads to an altogether contrived deus ex machina conclusion. Where is the pithy face-off between good and evil? Ultimately, The Devil’s Advocate is well-made and well-performed, but the parts are the greater than the whole.