The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
Based on the book by Andrew Neiderman, The Devil’s Advocate is an amazing supernatural horror film with a depth of strong thematic material. The screenplay, adapted by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy, is executed with extraordinary artistic skill by director Taylor Hackford.
Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) is a ruthless young Florida attorney that never lost a case that is recruited by the most powerful law firm in the world. In spite of his mother’s disagreement, which compares New York City to Babylon, he and his beautiful wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) accept the offer and the money that comes along with it. The firm’s senior partner, John Milton (Al Pacino), sees something very special in Kevin, and showers him with wealth and feeds his vanity. However, Mary Ann just wants to have a baby, and becomes distressed by Kevin always being on a case and never at home. A multiple murder case for reviled businessman Alex Cullen (Craig T. Nelson) tears them further apart as Kevin won’t leave the case for fear of hating Mary Ann for doing so. Feeling homesick, she witnesses horrifying apparitions, and starts to lose her grip on reality – or so it seems. As Kevin is lured deeper into a treacherous well of unholy evil and seduction, he will come to learn a startling truth that could claim his very soul.
Director Taylor Hackford delivers a very fascinating film where there is always something more subversive occurring beneath the surface. The courtroom and law scenes are never just proceedings, but a test of morality and conscience in a bigger picture. There is a strong sense that there is something larger at stake with everything that is going on. The audience can always feel a supernatural, sullen presence presiding over nearly everything in the film. This is achieved in many ways from the atmospheric lighting in key scenes to the shady religious themes to John Milton’s skillful seduction. The film does use a generous amount of religious context to massively profound effect. People are consumed by their own sins, and are given the means to embrace them without consequence, as long as they have no consciences to worry about. This is where tying this story directly into the world of defense attorneys and a shady law firm is brilliant. They are people dedicated to clearing offenders of guilt, regardless of whether or not they are guilty. For these characters, that requires a certain absence of conscience, and a dedication to deception, which are strongly prevalent themes in this film.
The moral corruption in the film is magnificently showcased through Mary Ann. She is a very wholesome woman who is thrust into a world of amoral people. They are pretentious, arrogant people that severely test Mary Ann’s psychological and moral resolve. She clearly is not comfortable around them, which is best displayed during and after the party scene, and just being around them begins to decay her mental stability. As she and Kevin are further driven apart, she gets worse and worse where the nightmares and isolation psychologically break her down, but that is ultimately not the worst of it. Kevin is corrupted differently as John Milton gives him the opportunities to feed his competitive edge and then some.
As I’ve mentioned many times before, I really do like Keanu Reeves. He’s a better quality actor than many give him credit for. This performance is a fine example. I like the dichotomy that Kevin is a very confident and in control person when he’s being a lawyer, but he sacrifices the stability and health of his marriage for it. He is so deeply ensnared into Milton’s charismatic web of temptation and power that he cannot perceive the moral destruction of his life. Reeves takes Kevin from those humble roots of a defense attorney who still has some conscience left to one who abandons it all for greater pleasure and glory. He loved his wife dearly, but ultimately, he is turned against her as they both deteriorate in this “Babylon.” Reeves shows early on that there is a humanity within Kevin, despite the unsavory things he does to secure a win, and that carries with an audience throughout the picture. As he’s corrupted further in New York, he never becomes a bad guy to the audience. We can see what’s happening to Kevin while he does indulge in the thrill of victory and hedonism alongside Milton. This is also partially due to being intrigued by John Milton’s mystique, the same as Kevin. We’re both following Milton down this dark path of temptation, and we cannot turn away from it. Emotionally, Reeves can be intense with one scene showing a horrifying outpour of grief and horror. Going into the climax, he delivers chilling conviction that ramps up the dramatic power of the film. Beyond anything else, Keanu Reeves also solidly and consistently pulls off that southern accent.
Al Pacino is absolutely amazing in this film. He indulges full boar into the hedonism and charisma of this role. It’s great seeing him cut loose, but he plays it very smartly, only letting the full measure out at the right times. Milton is definitely a tempter, a guy who opens the door, but never closes it behind you. He allows you to dig your own grave. He never seals your fate for you. Milton gives Kevin plenty of chances to back out, to walk away from the Cullen case to take care of Mary Ann, but he never takes it. He manipulates no one into doing anything they don’t want to do. He seduces your desires to the surface. The film smartly and slowly las the seeds of knowledge that Milton is more than he appears to be. There’s an unspoken power he has that gradually manifests in more and more dramatic ways as the film goes on. At a certain point, who and what he is becomes undeniable. Pacino’s performance is brilliant and vibrant. The scenes between him and Reeves are the real meat of the film, and they are a powerful pairing that do make this film excell in many ways.
Charlize Theron takes a powerfully emotional journey from that sweet, wholesome, and spirited small town woman to a horribly traumatized and vulnerable one. Mary Ann might’ve been a young lady to contend with in her small Florida town, but in New York, she is entirely overwhelmed by everything. She is incredible, and very brave for embracing the challenging demands of this role. She takes her performance into frighteningly dark places that she should be commended for. This is definitely an early breakout role for her, and it shows the incredible talent she possesses. Theron and Reeves have great chemistry, and are so deeply convincing from the passionate, happy couple to the terribly turbulent and fractured one.
The supporting cast has some solid performances from Jeffrey Jones as the gluttonous, arrogant, and abrasive firm partner Eddie Barzoon, Connie Nielsen as the intriguing and somewhat exotic Christabella, Craig T. Nelson putting in a heavyweight performance as the ruthless real estate developer Alex Cullen, and even a small role by Delroy Lindo as the goat sacrificing Phillipe Moyez, who has a dark mystique and implied supernatural power. This is a fantastically assembled cast in every single aspect, from even the smallest role all the way to the leads.
It should be no surprise that the stirring, ominous, and moody score is the work of James Newton Howard. It certainly has some gothic and choral elements giving the film a darkly cathedral sound. It is plenty haunting, especially going into the third act when everything becomes very wicked and surreal. It’s overall a striking and potent work that regularly maintains that unsettling and foreboding supernatural tone I mentioned before.
The film is also so damn well shot. The cinematography gives the film such scope and foreboding atmosphere. It brings profound grandeur and artistry to the thematic weight of the story. While Andrzej Bartkowiak hasn’t shot much worth noting, he does a remarkable job on this film teamed with director Taylor Hackford. That cinematography shows off the cultured and artistically modern, for the time, production designs. John Milton’s office and especially penthouse home are designed with gorgeous vision by Bruno Rubeo. The location shooting shows off the deep character of the city of New York. The filmmakers even secured the golden apartment of Donald Trump for that of Alex Cullen. This authenticity adds so much depth of detail to the film.
The Devil’s Advocate is definitely filled with an array of chilling images and grisly moments. These are all handled with immense weight and artistry. Digital effects are used greatly morphing one person’s face, subtly, into a demonic visage, or haunting Mary Ann with other surreal sights. The climax has some ambitious CGI between the morphing piece of artwork and the explosive fiery effects. However, the best moments of horror are more practical and psychologically based. They tap into the unholy evil that looms over everyone twisting peoples’ lives into a tangled web of destruction, and it creates thick tension and taut suspense. Something fearful has befallen their lives, and it is corrupting in ways they cannot comprehend. This is all masterfully and intelligently crafted with a strong atmosphere that is like the rumbling of thunder on the horizon. A dark storm is coming that none of them are prepared for, let alone can see.
The Devil’s Advocate has an amazing and stunning finale punctuated gloriously over the end credits by the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.” This really is a magnificently conceived and executed film. Backed by an immensely talented cast, this delivers strongly with strong thematic material and brilliantly realized imagery that chills and frightens. Aside from some CGI that might not measure up to modern standards, there is nothing negative I can say about this film. While the 90s where not the best decade for horror, this is certainly one of smartest and most dimensional horror films of that decade which brought us The Exorcist III, New Nightmare, Lord of Illusions, In The Mouth of Madness, and Scream.