Janus Film Review Presents: The Devil's Advocate (1997)

Updated: Dec 22, 2018

as reviewed by Tom

Format Reviewed: Digital/Warner Home Video (2014).

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.

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