Spooky films:  The Devil’s Advocate

Sure, it’s autumn – the signs of the impending spooky season are all around.  One of the very good haunted attractions around where Michael lives is the Halloween Harvest Festival held at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, CA.  The organizers were already growing their corn back in the summer months and hiring staff and actors to play ghouls (no experience necessary?  We’ll see about that!).  Ahhh, but the season is nearly upon us now, so let’s warm up with a spooky movie for the present.  We’ll let Michael lead this discussion.

The Devil's Advocate - movie poster (IMDB)Evil spirits are part of the Halloween lore dating back to the earliest history of Lemuria, The Day of the Dead, All Souls’ Day, and Halloween (see our previous post on the history of Halloween).  Presumably, that would include mention of Old Nick himself. In accordance with that, Spooky Things Online gives you one of the most underrated Al Pacino movies ever, in our opinion:  the 1997 film The Devil’s Advocate, wherein Pacino gets to go over the top playing the Devil himself (or does he?).  Listed at 2 hours and 24 minutes, the film never seems that long because the action keeps you on edge.  However, this is for grownups only:  some scenes are definitely not for children, unless you really want them to have nightmares of one sort or another.

The plot may occasionally seem somewhat contrived, but all in all, the actors acquit themselves well.  Now this in itself might be shocking and scary to his many critics, but Keanu Reeves – who looks rather gaunt these days and really isn’t aging well; a mortal sin in Hollywood – is truly excellent in the role of the young hotshot lawyer Kevin Lomax.  Reeves holds his own in every scene with Pacino, who is typically known for chewing up the scenery and stealing the show.

[an aside from Marie:   Well, duh, it’d only be surprising or shocking if those same critics only knew Keanu from his dumb-surfer roles and the wretched Constantine or the Matrix films and hadn’t seen the rest of his early work, including River’s Edge, the farce Tune In Tomorrow, Point Break and the critically praised Gus Van Sant indie film My Own Private Idaho, not to mention his charming cameo as the young doctor, Julian Mercer, who likes older women in Something’s Gotta Give or the much later, splendid The Lake House, a romance in which Reeves and Sandra Bullock, who are about the same age, play characters who are also the same age (though both about a decade younger than the actors themselves) and still manage to fall in love because of a warp in time – imagine that!  A bloody miracle in Hollywood instead of the usual May-December crap.  Never mind the magical-realist plot, which actually comes across as less unbelievable than The Matrix.  I’ll always consider The Lake House to be Keanu Reeves’s definitive portrayal of an actual, feeling adult human being, in this case with a good heart.  But I will say this:  The Devil’s Advocate is as close as he gets to a real human being on the dark side, and that’s pretty damned close, pun intended.]

Keanu Reeves (R) and Ebon Moss-Bachrach as the young architect brothers Wyler in the 2006 film The Lake House (photo courtesy of Warner Brothers films)

Ebon Moss-Bachrach (L) and Keanu Reeves (R) as the young Chicagoan architect brothers Henry and Alex Wyler in the 2006 film The Lake House; we thought a rare shot of Reeves smiling was worth including!  (photo courtesy of Warner Brothers films)

Kudos also go out to Poltergeist star Craig T. Nelson (oh, we will get to that movie in due time), and the always beautiful Connie Nielsen.  And then there’s a delicious cameo of boxing promoter Don King that might be the most appropriate one of all time: a scene of him literally making a deal with the devil.  Only in America, as King might say.

The film has some of the spooky ambience we look for on this blog, including a few demons (and no, we don’t mean the lawyers, though they do give the demons a run for their money).  But if you haven’t already seen the film, consider this as you watch:  are the demons real, or are they only in Mary Ann’s imagination?  She’s played really wonderfully, BTW, by Charlize Theron, who was a raw newcomer back then.  Theron’s acting overshadows her natural beauty in this movie, which is impressive considering how young she was at the time.

And then, of course, there’s Pacino himself as the high-powered, master-of-the-universe lawyer John Milton, head of the international firm of Milton, Chadwick, and Waters, which employs young Lomax.  The character’s name is a deliberate reference to 17th-century poet John Milton, author of the famous work Paradise Lost, a retelling of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and their temptation, fall and subsequent eviction from the Garden of Eden.

Through just about the entire movie, Milton the attorney is reasonable, friendly, sympathetic to people, even likeable, though we get little hints now and then that he might be more than he seems.  What he says to Lomax seems innocent enough and makes sense, as in this exchange:

John Milton:  It’s your wife, man.  She’s sick; she needs you … she’s got to come first.  Ah, wait a minute, wait a minute.  You mean the possibility of leaving this case has never even entered you mind?

Kevin Lomax:  You know what scares me? I quit the case, she gets better … and I hate her for it. I don’t want to resent her, John; I’ve got a winner here.  I’ve got to nail this fucker down, do it fast, and put it behind me.  Just get it done.  Then – then – put all my energy into her.

John Milton:  I stand corrected.

And so do we, by the time we hear Milton’s final monologue – when he transforms, showing his true colors at last but still speaking with apparent reasonableness, as well the Devil might, reminding the young attorney of his own, now sadly ironic, words.  That monologue is thought provoking and riveting in its analysis of Lomax’s character and how he, through his uncoerced choices, betrays his own integrity and his wife Mary Ann with his win-at-all-costs mentality.

Is Milton the lawyer truly Lucifer, Beelzebub, Satan?  (The way the fireplace flames flare up at his presence signals to us that maybe he is, or at least the film wants us to think so at certain points.)  Is Lomax really an unwitting, ironic ‘devil’s advocate’ here, a counterpoint that makes the devil himself look less evil by comparison or even nonexistent, or is it the film that plays that role, trying to make us think better of a character who cleverly seduces and suborns evil – even as he questions the protagonist’s decisions to make sure they’re being made of his own free will?

[hint from Marie:  it might be wise to remember just what a devil’s advocate is.  In the Vatican, when a deceased person is nominated for sainthood, an advocate makes the case for canonization – but the person (typically a priest) who plays the devil’s advocate has the job of challenging the case, scrutinizing every aspect of the nominee’s life, looking for adverse details, and making sure the requisite number of miracles attributed to this candidate have actually been met.  Thus, in arguing against the case, this harsh inquisitor is both testing the evidence and, in a way, ‘making the devil’s case’ against sainthood.]

Without giving away the rest of the plot, we’ll let you think about all that before you see the movie.  We will say, however, that the film has a surprise ending that most people won’t see coming.  All things considered, The Devil’s Advocate is a good choice for the spooky season upon us.

Until next time, hold tight and don’t let the hounds from hell bite!

Your spooky film critics,
Michael and Marie



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