The Devil’s Advocate (1997), based on Andrew Neiderman’s eponymous novel, directed by Taylor Hackford, and starring Al Pacino, Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron, is a contemporary morality play that mixes elements of supernatural Horror and John Grisham style legal thriller.
“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”
It goes without saying that by the 1990s, Al Pacino had become a very different actor from what he had started out as in the 1970s. Pacino, who broke out with his star making performance as the brooding, intense Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather (1972), went onto cement his reputation as a great actor with his subtle, nuanced and poetic performances. But by the 90s, Pacino had become a loud, wildly theatrical, prosaic and even a hammy actor, who screams and shouts and talk a lot through films as different as “Scent of a Woman” and “Heat.” No matter what the character, what the story or who the director, Pacino will act only in the over-the-top mode. He was further spoiled by the belated Oscar that he won for one of his hammiest turns in “Scent of a Woman(1992).” After that there was no stopping him from doubling down on the ham in his performances. A more subtle and quieter performance as in “Donnie Brasco” was a very rare exception during this period. But there were a few instances in this period when the roles he played suited his outlandish acting style: his ‘Big Boy Caprice from Warren Beatty’s adaptation of the comic strip, “Dick Tracy(1990)” was one of them, where he was actually playing a cartoon character; the other one was Taylor Hackford’s “The Devil’s Advocate (1997).” In the film Pacino plays the devil himself – Satan or Lucifer, whatever one wishes to call him. This 90s Devil resides in an ultramodern, ominously spacious penthouse on Fifth Avenue in New York City. He has acquired the name (most ironically) John Milton (as in the author of “Paradise Lost”). He runs a powerful law firm named Milton Chadwick & Waters (why?: because law puts him into everything), which specifically handles ultra rich clients who are guilty- Milton makes sure that they all go scot-free and continue to wreck havoc in this god-created world. But Milton\devil is getting tired of having to carry the load all by himself. The Millennium is coming (“Title fight, round 20” as he calls it), and he now wants to create a family who will share the burden with him. His idea is to mate one of his daughters with one of his sons and create the anti-Christ, and he hopes that he will work towards expanding their empire. He has already got one of his perfect daughters on board for the project- the luscious Christabella Andreoli (Connie Nielsen) is already working as one of the lawyers in his firm. Now, as the film begins, Milton is on the hunt to find one of his sons who will be a perfect mate for her.
Enter Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves), a hotshot lawyer from Gainesville, Florida. The son of a fundamentalist mother, Alice (Judith Ivey), and raised without a father. What Kevin does not know is that his father is actually Milton; Milton had seduced his mother when she was in NYC; but she managed to escape from him when she became pregnant and she fled to the heartlands, and into the arms of god. But his mother’s religion, and faith in god, did not rub off on Kevin, who seems to have take after his father as far as his profession and moral compass is concerned. He’s a lawyer who’s driven by an obsessive urge to win at all cost, irrespective of his client being guilty or innocent. He has never lost a case and he’s on a winning streak of 63 successful cases. Now he’s on his 64th, and this one is going to be the greatest test of his mettle and his morality: he’s defending a schoolteacher, Lloyd Gettys, against a charge of child molestation, and he belatedly realizes his client is guilty; and that a guilty verdict is inevitable. Kevin takes a recess and walks into the men’s room to think things out. In the end, his ego and his obsession to keep winning gets the better of him; he walks back into court, and through a harsh cross-examination, he destroys the young female victim’s credibility to secure a “not guilty” verdict. Once he comes through in this case, Milton realizes that Kevin’s the one capable of siring the anti-Christ. Milton sends his best man, Leamon Heath, to Florida with an offer big enough to entice Kevin to come to NYC; Kevin is to assist the firm in the jury selection of an important case. Despite his mother’s warnings that New York is full of demons, Kevin accepts the job, and he and his wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) leaves for Manhattan.
Now just to be clear: even though the trailers and publicity material for the film made it absolutely clear that Pacino is playing Satan, the film takes full two hours (of its 144 minutes runtime) to make this explicit. Till then the film keeps dropping hints leaving the audience to figure it out; and this starts right from Milton’s introduction scene that happens only after Kevin reaches NYC: Thanks to Kevin’s astute jury selection, the firm wins the case, and as Kevin jubilantly walks out of court, we see Milton watching him from a distance. But Milton does not go up to him or talk to him; he simply walks away. And for the head of such a rich law firm- whom we would expect to be travelling around in a Limo- Milton is seen (all alone) heading towards the underground subways to board a train. This is the first hint that this is no ordinary guy, and he prefers to reign in the underworld. Soon, Kevin is invited to visit the firm’s office for a face to face meeting with Milton. On reaching the firm’s office, Kevin’s eyes gets immediately locked on Christabella; he feels a tremendous attraction towards; he even feels like he can hear what she’s saying even though she’s far away from him.
When Kevin and Milton meet for the first time, Milton has a look of astonishment and endearment as if he’s meeting someone he always wanted to meet. Milton comes from behind Kevin and surprises him- saying “Behind You,” that’s the first words spoken by the Devil in the film. After that Milton begins his slow seduction of his son: unleashing all his charm, Milton takes Kevin out to his patio, which is on the top floor of the building, and to Kevin’s astonishment there are two pools, with water dripping right down the building. Standing there on ‘top of the world’; on an ethereal landscape where sky and water seems to meet; and where they can see entire Manhattan under their feet; Milton tempts Kevin to join him; join his firm actually, for which he will be paid a huge salary, and provided a swanky apartment on his Fifth Avenue high-rise. Kevin, and his equally ambitious wife, Mary Ann cannot resist such an offer. Kevin accepts the job, and he and Mary Ann move into their new apartment where Leamon Heath and his wife, Jackie, are their neighbors. Soon, Kevin is assigned his first case: a truly bizarre one involving a Voodoo shaman caught sacrificing goats in his underground basement. Kevin’s visit to the the shaman’s dark, underworld lair is the eeriest moment in the film, and the first full blown moments of creepy horror and encounter with an evil force. The Shaman does some Voodoo tricks which seem to ultimately benefit Kevin during the trial: the prosecuting attorney collapses coughing and couldn’t get a single argument out. Kevin wins the case, and he’s invited to a lavish party given by the company’s managing partner, Eddie Barzoon (Jeffrey Jones).
Kevin and Mary Ann attends the party together, and this is were Mary meets Milton for the first time. In keeping with his plan to set up Kevin with his half-sister, Christabella, Milton starts putting his hooks into Mary, and seduces her into changing her hairstyle- the one that Kevin finds attractive. He knew this would cause Kevin to start losing interest in his wife sexually and become more focused on his work, and on Christabella- who, at the same party, is making her moves on Kevin . When Milton sees Kevin and Christabella together at the party – subtly flirting with each other – he calls them the future of the company. On the surface, this means the future of the law firm, and its illegal dealings. It also foreshadows the revelation that Milton wants the two to produce a child that will rule the world. Milton drags Kevin away from the party to his penthouse to discuss a new case, leaving Mary Ann all alone. Kevin is given a chance to represent the hottest criminal case in town: Alex Cullen (Craig T. Nelsen), a Donald Trump like billionaire businessman (Donald Trump’s private residential multi-level apartment at Trump Tower was used as Alex Cullen’s home in the film.) is accused of murdering his wife, his stepson, and a maid; and he needs immediate legal representation. Milton’s partners are aghast at him offering such a high profile case to a novice like Kevin, but Milton persists with his offer, and Kevin accepts.
This means that Kevin is going to be devoting all his time on this high profile case, and Mary Ann, already angry with Kevin for abandoning her at the party, starts becoming more and more agitated and mentally disturbed. She starts having terrifying visions of the partners’ wives becoming demonic, and has a nightmare about a baby playing with her removed ovaries. And after a doctor declares her infertile, she completely goes over the edge; she picks a violent quarrel with Kevin, and raves and rants about them being put through a kind of moral test from which they will not survive. Kevin tries to calm her down by having sex with her, but their lovemaking is interrupted when Kevin starts fantasizing about Christabella. Kevin gets his mother to come and visit them, but on her arrival she runs into Milton, and realizes that he’s the man who impregnated her with Kevin. But she does not reveal this to Kevin; she only insists that it’s better for all of them if Kevin would return to Florida with Mary Ann. But Kevin is so much into his work, and he’s so seduced by Milton’s world – filled with rich & famous people, gorgeous women and debauched sexual orgies – that he wouldn’t even think of it. At one point, Milton himself suggests that Kevin step down from the trial to tend to his wife, but Kevin claims that if he does and she recovers, he may resent her for costing him the case.
Meanwhile, Eddie Barzoon, who was resenting Kevin for the latter’s quick rise in the firm, turns up dead- beaten to death by a bunch of demonic looking vagrants. Milton asks Kevin to put the incident behind him and concentrate on Cullen’s case. But Kevin is in for a shock when he realizes that Cullen is indeed guilty of the murders, and he conveys this to Milton. Milton counsels him to make a choice, and promises to back him up no matter what he chooses to do. And it doesn’t surprise Milton a bit when Kevin goes to the extend of perjuring himself by presenting ‘false witness’ to win the case, and get Cullen acquitted. But Kevin’s euphoria is short-lived, as he’s confronted by a badly bruised and naked Mary Ann in the church, who tells him that Milton raped and brutalized her; and he’s supposed to have raped her at exactly the same time when Milton was sitting behind Kevin in the courtroom. Naturally, Kevin doesn’t believe her, and assuming she injured herself, Kevin commits her to a mental institution. Alice, Kevin and Pam Garrety, his case manager from the firm, visit Mary Ann at the institution. After seeing Pam as a demon, Mary Ann hits her with a hand mirror and barricades the room. As Kevin breaks down the door, Mary Ann commits suicide by cutting her throat with a shard of glass. It’s only now that Alice reveals the truth about Milton being Kevin’s father; Kevin leaves the hospital to confront Milton, and on his way to Milton’s tower, he finds a totally empty East 57th Street without cars or people. The final half hour of the film is fully set in Milton’s lair, where the devil and his son confronts each other: Milton unveils his plan, raves and rants against god, and offers up Christabella as the ultimate gift for Kevin. Initially, Kevin is agitated and blames Milton for Mary Ann’s death, but soon he realizes that it was all his fault. It appears for a moment there that he will go along with Milton’s plan, as he prepares to mate with Christabella, but then he choose to exercise ‘free will’ and shoots and kills himself. Seeing his plans foiled, Milton goes into a blazing fury that burns down everything around him; he is soon reduced to his fallen angel status and cast out once again.
As you see there’s a hell of a lot of plot in this approx. 21\2 hr. film, and that’s one of the film’s drawbacks. The film is too ambitious for its own good, where it not only tries to pack in too many themes but even too many genres, with influences from multitude of films: they are elements taken from supernatural films like “Angel Heart” (starring Robert De Niro) and “Witches of Eastwick” (starring Jack Nicholson)- both of them were modern retellings of the ‘The Devil’s’ story; and the entire arc of Charlize Theron’s Mary Ann is very similar to Mia Farrow’s from Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)- right down to the big and somewhat disturbing apartment in which she and Reeves lives and the assortment of creepy neighbors. Apart from this we can find influences from John Grisham’s “The Firm,” and Puzo\Coppola’s “The Godfather.” However, the most conflicting & unsatisfying part of the movie lies in its multitude of themes it tries to explore: from the conflict between the divine, demonic and human; to Marital discord & adultery; to the contrast between small-town ethos and big-city corruption; greed, lust & power Vs love, professional ethics and morality; each theme on its own is extremely interesting and could carry a film without the others, but in this film they are all mixed up together, and not very seamlessly. The film shifts from one theme to the other rather randomly, and never satisfying tackles either one of them; it would have been far more appealing had it focused on less, giving certain themes more attention, and thus making them richer. One does appreciate the director and the writers for trying to make something ambitious, totally unique and epic, but it would have been better to sacrifice a few characters and themes, and cut down on too much genre-hopping to develop a more straightforward, tight and fully engaging narrative.
The problem is also that the director Taylor Hackford is not that great a director to handle a film of this eclecticism; he’s a good director, but a ‘conventional’ director- what you call a journeyman director; and he makes predominantly straightforward dramas like “An officer and a Gentleman.”; he does his best to breathe fresh life into several well-worn horror themes- mixing great ideas from “Milton’s Paradise Lost,” “Dante’s Inferno,” Shakespearean Tragedies, and “Legend of Faust”; and skillfully weaving them into a slick, big-budget horror/thriller that delivers on many (or at least attempt to deliver and succeed on some) levels. But this film needed the genius, baroque artistry, and grand operatic sensibilities of a Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma or Stanley Kubrick to ensure that the film lives up to its ambitions to be a true modern epic that transcends multiple genres and encompasses a wide variety of themes, but in the form it exists today its more of an over-the-top potboiler that shifts between a straight & serious horror\melodrama to a dark comedy. There’s also a final twist, a sort of coda, which tries to explain away Kevin’s supernatural experiences as his hallucination- a big cheat in my opinion, and shows Hackford’s lack of confidence in (his own ability in convincing the audiences and the ability of the audiences in digesting) such an eclectic tale; and it’s also used to drive home the point (for the nth time) that Human beings are weak, and no matter how much you try, the devil will find a way to catch you. Hackford’s biting denunciation of the American judicial system’s abuses and injustices is also rather unrealistic, stereotypical and even hypocritical. This criticism directed at lawyers for defending and enabling the acquittal of the most guilty is against the concept of the American judicial system where everyone is deserving of a fair trial and a fair defense. Also, Hollywood (whether it’s the studio heads, directors or actors) lives and dies by its unscrupulous lawyers, always depending upon them to deliver them the biggest deal and screwing their everyone else out of a fair share.
All this doesn’t mean that the film is not interesting or entertaining; on the contrary “The Devil’s Advocate” is thoroughly entertaining throughout. One must admire the work of editor, Mark Warner, who navigates the various mood (and genre) shifts of the film very well. Despite the film being predominantly a talky piece, and despite its abundance of themes and plot points, the film maintains a terrific pace. I thought that the crosscutting between the ambitious Kevin’s gradual descent into hell and Mary Ann’s descent into madness is very well handled- reminded me of “Macbeth.” The film is perhaps a little light on scares and gore to be entirely branded as horror, but there is a genuinely creepy atmosphere to compensate. Suspense is also built up by delaying the revelation about Milton and his grand plan for world dominance. The baroque production design, and the dark & rich Cinematography, which makes intelligent and highly inventive use of color, light and shadow, are highlights of the film. For a film that’s set primarily indoors: courtrooms, churches and luxurious apartments, the design of each set reveals a lot about the characters that inhabits it: Milton’s apartment is one giant hall that extends from darkness to darkness, with no rooms; obviously, the devil never sleeps (and fucks ‘everywhere’); while Kevin and Mary Ann’s apartment is appropriately claustrophobic. The special effects used in the film were cutting edge for its time, and still holds up, especially the one in the climax where a Bas relief in Milton’s apartment comes alive, and the figures seems to be indulging in an orgy (this also resulted in an expensive lawsuit for the studio as the sculpture featuring human forms was alleged to closely resemble the “Ex nihilo” sculpture by Frederick Hart on the façade of the Episcopal National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.). The original score by James Newton Howard is also great; he gets the mix of varied themes much better than Hackford does.
But the best thing about the film is the cast assembled and the performances of the actors. Charlize Theron, for whom this was a breakout performance, looks gorgeous and delivers a credible performance in a role that’s slightly underwritten; the same goes for Connie Nielsen too. Jeffrey Jones gives his usual amusing turn as Eddie Barzoon, who threatens to out Milton and then gets killed for it. Craig T. Nelson, cast against type, as the ‘Trump’ like billionaire (and like King Herod, who has the hots for his stepdaughter) is really good in his role. But the film belongs to Al Pacino; you cannot think of any other actor who can pull of this role, especially the final half hour of the film- that’s an Al Pacino one-man show: he holds court by delivering one bravura monologue after another defending the devil and criticizing god; and tempting Reeves’ Kevin to commit the ultimate sin. It takes a really special actor to make those lengthy monologues dripping with anger, sarcasm, wit, intelligence and seduction work, and Pacino is the man for the job. The dialogues are extremely well written by Tony Gilroy, who ripped off a lot of stuff from this film for his own legal drama, “Michael Clayton.” Pacino’s devil refers to god as “a sadist and absentee landlord,” calls himself “a fan of man and the last humanist,” and asks Kevin to forego his guilt- which is nothing more than “a bag of fucking bricks.” Pacino also sing and dance to Frank Sinatra’s “It happened in Monterey.” You will never hear the devil’s viewpoint argued better than here: he claims to just set the stage, open the doors; it’s up to humans to decide whether they wants to walk through that door or not. That’s exactly how the Milton-Lomax relationship is set up throughout the film. Kevin could have given up the case and tended to Mary Ann anytime he wanted- Milton himself advices him to do that, but he was too vain and ambitious to stop. Pacino must have loved playing the devil, it shows in every word, in every gesture in his performance. A lot of actors have played ‘the dark prince’ in the past, but but no one ever tops Pacino in this. Keanu Reeves, who actually has more screen time, can barely keep pace with Pacino. Reeves is good, but miscast in a role which requires him to put on an accent and talk a lot (not his strong suit); he never convinced me that he was as brilliant a legal mind as the script suggests. Anyway, the good thing is that playing the ‘devil’ and his ‘advocate\son’ did not corrupt either of them: Reeves accepted a lower salary so the producers could pay Al Pacino’s asking price; when Pacino later heard about this, he donated the same amount of his salary to charity.