- Year: 1997
- Director: Taylor Hackford
- Starring: Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino, Charlize Theron
Today’s movie is one that I’ve learned almost everyone has strong feelings about. Now, no one seems to have the same feelings regarding The Devil’s Advocate, but everyone is sure passionate in their argument. Is it just a jumbled, campy mess? Is it Pacino at his lowest or should his character be this over-the-top? Does it collapse under the weight of its own ambition or does it take a mediocre book and give it more mature themes? Let’s take a look.
Keanu Reeves plays hotshot Florida defense attorney Kevin Lomax, who is defending Lloyd Gettys, a teacher accused of molesting a student. He believes Gettys to be innocent until he sees that the student’s testimony is clearly arousing him. Kevin asks for a recess and walks into the bathroom to think over his options. A reporter (Neal Jones) comments that it might be his first loss, causing Kevin to re-enter the courtroom and lay down a ruthless cross examination that leads to a not guilty verdict.
While out drinking with his wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) and some friends, Kevin is approached by Leamon Heath (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) of the law firm Milton, Chadwick, and Waters. They want Kevin to help pick a jury, but of course this is just a test to get him a job at the firm.
It’s a small thing, but I have to give credit to the writers for giving these characters memorable names. There are a ton of important players in this film, so giving them unique names like Leamon Heath, Eddie Barzoon, Cristabella Andreoli, and even John Milton really helps them stand out. For example, in the book, Kevin’s last name was Taylor. It’s not a bad-sounding name, but Kevin Lomax is definitely going to stick with you better.
Of course, Kevin takes the job at Milton’s firm. His first case is defending Phillipe Moyez (Delroy Lindo), a voodoo priest of sorts who is twisting his religion to justify abusing animals. Kevin uses the argument of kosher butchering and gets his client off. This was of course another test from Milton, one that leads him to the murder trial of the year, defending Alex Cullen (Craig T. Nelson).
Meanwhile, Mary Ann is not enjoying her new life in New York quite as much. She begins having visions of her new friends—spouses of the firm’s top employees—literally turning into demons. She goes from having a strong career in Florida to not working in New York, and even when she wants to have a child, she discovers she is infertile. Ultimately, this is what throws her over the edge.
As I mentioned above, Charlize Theron’s performance is one of the aspects of the film that is the most consistently praised. It’s an incredibly challenging part to play, because her character is clearly not well, but it’s a little ambiguous how much is real and how much is delusion. Just like in The Shining, some unsettling things are definitely happening, but what percentage is supernatural vs. natural is a little blurred. Sure, we learn by the end that Milton is actually the Devil, but are all of his associates demons? Do they show their true colors to Mary Ann to make her crazy? Does she see their true colors because she is a more moral person than most? Or are there demonic transformations a visual representation of what is going on in Mary Ann’s mind? I think it’s more than just the occasional jump scare, because this isn’t that kind of movie.
Another subplot involves Eddie Barzoon (Jeffrey Jones), the firm’s head of accounts, being investigated by the justice department. Barzoon is the fourth or fifth most important character in the film, but we still get a well-rounded picture of a man whose heyday is past. We get the impression that he used to be Milton’s favorite son (perhaps literally) before hotshot Kevin came along. Jeffrey Jones plays all the disgust of that so perfectly, but we still feel sorry for his character when he comes to his end in Central Park.
Alright, let’s talk about the thing everyone remembers this movie for—Al Pacino’s Devil. If someone watches just the scene where he is screaming about God (or even more likely, a fraction of the scene), they would think it’s too over-the-top. However, you have to take the same approach I talked about in my analysis of Eyes Wide Shut. If you watch this scene without any real context of the rest of the film, yes, it seems like too much. However, if you have watched the first two hours of the film, it makes perfect sense.
Milton, first and foremost, is the partner at a law firm. He has to have a larger-than-life personality to be successful. He doesn’t shout every line in the film as viewers of the final scene only may believe, but he has incredible charisma. Plus, he’s basically the personification of hedonistic fun. He likes boxing, flamenco dance, and he has an endless parade of beautiful women at his side.
Director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy specifically developed this character for Al Pacino, making him a tried-and-true New Yorker who takes the subway everywhere. Pacino is a relatively short man, so Milton is someone who brags “They don’t see me coming.” Instead of a physically imposing devil like Jonathan Pryce in Something Wicked This Way Comes or even Robert De Niro in Angel Heart, Pacino’s is mentally imposing, which is honestly way more intimidating and interesting.
In many Faustian tales, the lead will gradually become disillusioned with what the Devil has given him, arguing that he didn’t live up to his end of the deal. Now, to be fair, Kevin hasn’t literally sold his soul to Satan here, but he does work for him. I actually like how this Devil doesn’t gradually show himself more and more, instead creating something of an amoral persona. It makes his most horrifying act—the rape of Mary Ann-all the more unexpected.
The final thirty minutes are an incredible finale to the film, and they make it much more about the characters and ideas than just a violent confrontation. There are a lot of plot threads that rapidly come to a head, and my heart’s beating every time. When Mitch Weaver from the justice department gets hit by that car, it’s like something out of The Omen.
When Mary Ann kills herself and Kevin’s mother (Judith Ivey) reveals to him that Milton is his father, Kevin finally approaches Milton in his apartment. The gloves are finally off and Milton is ready to let loose. He’s prepared to offer Kevin everything, but not without ranting at God first.
This Devil views God as basically a boss who spited him, throwing in memorable phrases like “cosmic blooper reel” and “absentee landlord.” It’s fascinating to see people praising this scene saying things like “Wow, he destroyed God with that rant.” Congratulations, you just fell into his trap. You bought exactly what he was handing out without analyzing it.
It’s not just Kevin’s soul that Milton wants, though, but a child. He wants Kevin and Cristabella (revealed to also be the Devil’s child) to conceive a child who will go on to be the Antichrist. Kevin immediately challenges this though, saying “In the Bible, you lose. We’re destined to lose, Dad.” Milton fires back with perhaps the best line in the movie, “Consider the source, son.” Kevin does then begin to warm to this idea, giving into Cristabella’s seduction.
It’s shocking that after what Milton did to his wife that Kevin even entertains his offer, but it’s not the riches that tempt him. Milton promises all kinds of things, but Kevin is mostly interested in vanity. It’s the fame that gets Kevin, not the fortune. Milton even tells him his vanity is justified.
In a moment of clarity, though, Kevin pulls out the gun and turns it on himself. “Free will, right?” he says, right before he shoots. After Milton screams out in defeat and his world crumbles around him, Kevin finds himself back at the sink in the Florida courtroom.
In front of the whole court, Kevin announces he can no longer defend Gettys. On his way out the door, he is stopped by the same reporter from earlier, asking him for a story. After some insistence, Kevin says yes, and the reporter turns into Milton, saying “Vanity, definitely my favorite sin.”
There are plenty of ways to interpret the ending, but I don’t buy the “it was all a dream” explanation. I suppose you could argue in that moment of decision regarding Gettys, Kevin saw where the road would take him, but I don’t think so. I think God intervened, showing himself not to be such an “absentee landlord” after all. It’s a second chance after Kevin beat the Devil, and even if he does the wrong thing again, it was a chance—free will once more.
However, it’s not like Kevin gave into vanity just by agreeing to do an interview. He was being incredibly vain by announcing in front of the whole courtroom that he could no longer support Gettys. He could have easily called the opposing council into the judge’s chambers and perhaps worked something out there—he did have new information after all. Instead, he made this grand statement before everyone, “Look at me, I’m doing the right thing.”
In a way, even the way he escaped Milton’s grasp was vain. I want to be incredibly clear—I am not suggesting people who commit suicide are vain, but Kevin’s situation is unique. He could have just walked out of Milton’s apartment and gone back to Florida like his mother suggested. Instead, he had to make a statement by shooting himself right there in front of Milton and Cristabella.
I’ve said a lot of good things about this film, and I’ve clearly been avoiding the giant elephant in the room—Keanu Reeves. This is often cited as an incredible miscast… and yeah I can’t argue. It’s not that Reeves is a horrible actor, and with the right script that doesn’t ask too much, like Speed, he’s really good. In this, though, he is way over his head.
He’s perfectly fine in the courtroom scenes, and I buy him as a well-read, intelligent lawyer. It’s in, well basically all the other scenes that he falls short. I guess you could argue he should be disinterested in the scenes with Mary Ann, but the scenes with Pacino? That’s where the true contrast of these two actors shows. In the final confrontation between Milton and Lomax, though, Reeves is way off with his uninterested delivery of should-be-emotional lines like “I don’t lose, I win.” Perhaps what bothers me most is that EDWARD NORTON was considered for the part. That may have been before Hackford and Gilroy took over, so I’m not sure how close it was to happening, but just imagine him selling the big emotional moments.
Also, I fear that the film is a bit rushed. There is a lot going on, and it’s not painful, but an extra half hour or so of run time would have helped. It would be pushing three hours, but it’s a compelling enough film, I think it would have worked. If you own the DVD or Blu-Ray, listen to Taylor Hackford’s director’s commentary. He’s a joy to listen to, and he does mention that the film got cut for a time a little more than he had hoped. You can watch some extended scenes too. The film works fine without these scenes, but I hope one day Hackford gets to release a proper director’s cut.
Let’s take a look at the final score.
Story (18/20 Points)
A little hurried and overblown? Perhaps, but I love its ambition, and it all comes together in an incredible climax. It all leads to the showdown between Kevin and Milton, and best of all, it’s a showdown of words.
Faust (8/20 Points)
Reeves is a decent actor, but there are so many great actors surrounding him. He has his moments, but overall it doesn’t work.
Devil (20/20 Points)
Smug, suave, funny, smart, and most of all charismatic, Pacino’s Devil is exactly what this film needs. He seems like an amoral, late 20th century kind of guy, but he is hiding pure evil.
Supporting Cast (20/20 Points)
Charlie Theron is perfect, portraying a mental breakdown almost too realistically. Jeffrey Jones’ Eddie Barzoon is the kind of character who could have been the lead of another movie, but even with some of his scenes trimmed, we know the character. There’s also Craig T. Nelson, Judith Ivey, Connie Nielsen, and many others who are all memorable.
Experience (16/20 Points)
The Devil’s Advocate is just soaked in New York, and the score by James Newton Howard adds a lot of tension. The moving mural in Milton’s apartment is especially unique and pure Milton.
FINAL SCORE: 82%
I will defend this movie endlessly, because the stuff that works really works. Pacino makes an incredibly charismatic Devil, and I will never tire of the film’s final act. There are flaws, a major one even, but it should still be checked out.
Next week, Johnny Depp and Roman Polanski team up in 1999’s The Ninth Gate.