The Last Humanist: In Defense of THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE
by Jacob Knight
Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino square off in one of the most under-appreciated movies from the '90s.
It’s uncertain how many days have been spent in this sweltering Gainesville courtroom when we’re dropped into the trail of Lloyd Gettys (Chris Bauer) – a pudgy, bespectacled schoolteacher accused of molesting more than one of his female students. Still one thing is clear: this inquisition is almost at its end. Gettys’ attorney – unbeaten hot shot Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) – has Barbara (Heather Matarazzo), the prosecution’s star witness, on the stand. Her testimony is damning – a first person account regarding how Mr. Gettys kept her after class one afternoon and then slipped his hands under her blouse and skirt; every graphic detail of the heinous groping causing the jury and their spectator peers to squirm in their seats. Making matters worse, Kevin sees how this narration excites Gettys, who quietly strokes the oak defense table with his left index and middle fingers, damn near licking his lips as a hard on forms in his trousers. Kevin knows he’s beat, and so does everyone else in this hall of justice. “It was a nice run, Kev. Can’t win ‘em all,” a courtroom reporter says to the linen-suited superstar after the defense calls for a recess. But Lomax isn’t ready to lose. He’s a lawyer. He wins. That’s his job. That’s what he does.
Taylor Hackford’s cinematic take on The Devil’s Advocate (loosely adapted from Andrew Neiderman’s novel of the same name) is a rarity in any era: a full-throated acting showcase cloaked in genre cloths and aimed straight at adults. Hackford’s film is undoubtedly cribbing from the golden age of '60s and '70s horror pictures, where characters grapple with the trials of adulthood as well as battling supernatural forces any mere mortal would be at a loss to comprehend (elements of Polanski and Friedkin are the most conspicuous). Eschewing jump scares and goopy creature effects in favor of bombastic tantrums revolving around philosophical debate, The Devil’s Advocate retains a sweaty sheen of sex throughout its near two-and-a-half hour runtime; bathing us in sin offered up to those who rise to power by ensuring the scummiest members of our society are kept from facing any sort of judicial consequences. The premise is ingenious in its simplicity: the Devil (portrayed with loud-quiet-loud Pixies-song dynamics by Al Pacino) is a powerful counselor, looking to recruit the most talented members of our legal system into his firm. Kevin Lomax is his next apprentice, after his unbreakable string of victories is kept afloat by some truly diabolical tarnishing of Barbara’s credibility. If there is a judge for every awful deed committed, then Satan is going to see to it that his minions are equipped with damn good defenses.
It’s the horror film distillation of Tom Wolfe’s “Masters of the Universe” concept. The Fallen One is John Milton, founding partner of Manhattan’s anointed anchorage for NYC’s best lawyers. His lackey seduces Kevin and his wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), with a check and a chance to select a jury for an upcoming case. Along the way, the usual big city turn-ons are trotted out; a large apartment (paid for in full, of course), a fancy corner office, and a six-figure salary that cannot be denied by these Florida bumpkins. New York is the Babylon Kevin’s mother (Judith Ivey) warned him of, but scripture isn’t as tangible as the new suits that slip over his shoulders like a second skin. The young shark quickly graduates from minor health code cases to defending a Trumpian real estate magnate (Craig T. Nelson) who’s been charged with shooting his wife and housekeeper. This is the big time, baby boy, and Milton wants to see just how this prodigal son reacts once his feet are put to the flames.
Keanu Reeves has been enjoying a recent renaissance, thanks to killer turns in John Wick, The Neon Demon and The Bad Batch, but it’s arguable whether we should’ve ever given him flack in the first place. Throughout his career, Reeves’ choice of projects has always been intriguing, teaming with up and coming action auteurs like Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break) or old masters like Francis Ford Coppola (Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Sure, the accents may waver from time to time (his Don Jon in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing is “not the best” at best), but he was also working in avant-garde Shakespeare hybrids a year after cementing '80s icon, Ted Logan. Between '90s pop smashes like Speed and The Matrix (both of which were stitched into our cultural fabric during their respective opening weekends) was plenty of forgettable studio mall crowd filler (though this writer will still fight people over the value of Johnny Mnemonic’s cyberpunk weirdness), and the early aughts were where his oeuvre saw its artistic nadir. Nevertheless, when taken as a complete body, you cannot peruse Keanu’s resume without coming across a year that found him attempting to flex his acting chops while dipping a toe into big budget eccentricity (2005’s double whammy of Thumbsucker and Constantine being a solid example). Reeves could’ve easily become another throwaway heartthrob, but instead stuck to his own Zen wavelength and transformed into a hero for those of us who like their movie stars to be unknowable tall dark entities of fantastic energy.
With Kevin Lomax, Keanu transfigures his trademark “whoa” into a guiding character philosophy, making Kevin a wandering babe in the concrete woods. Charming aloofness has always been one of the performer’s most endearing qualities, but Keanu is self-aware enough to play into his own persona and let his detachment be led by Pacino’s Milton, who sees him as nothing more than a ball of wet clay he can mold into his own image. But that doesn’t mean Kevin is a blank slate – quite the contrary. He’s a determined predator, able to slay a jury with his boyish handsomeness just as easily as he can shred a prosecutor’s flimsy argument. He’s great at his job, knows just how that talent makes him look to the world, and thrives on the attention it earns him. “Vanity has always been my favorite sin,” Milton tells him at one point, and Kevin cannot refute that it’s his as well. While many audience members are keen to focus on Reeves again indulging his borderline Costner-esque affinity for goofy inflection (this time a Southern drawl), they’d be missing one of the finest, laser focused turns he’s ever given. The fact that Reeves can even go toe to toe with Pacino during the picture’s grandiloquent dénouement is evidence unto itself of what an underrated actor he is.
Every performance Al Pacino gave post-Scent of a Woman is informed by the Oscar-winning blind Lieutenant Colonel. Even the titular Latin hoodlum from Carlito’s Way boasts a similar barking machismo as Frank Slade, despite being his most restrained, empathetic performance from the '90s; a tickling irony given that movie’s a reteaming with Brian De Palma (who helped coax one of Pacino’s most flamboyant, anti-human fits in Scarface). His at bat as Lucifer sits somewhere between the coked out, seething rage of Vincent Hanna (Heat) and whispering seductiveness of con man Rocky Roma from David Mamet’s Gelngarry Glen Ross. He’s sexual yet impotent, showing Kevin that he too can receive a blow job from a supermodel in the middle of a dinner party (if he so desires), before screaming ineffectually at the heavens, labeling God nothing more than a sadistic absentee landlord. Conversely, the most remarkable aspect of Pacino’s Satan is that he completely owns what is, in essence, one of the ultimate roles an actor can play. It’s hard to picture anyone else slipping into the skin of John Milton (subtle huh?) and showboating the way the famed performer does during the film’s final reel. It’s an elemental bit of Brechtian theater; Pacino practically breaking the fourth wall and asking the audience to come reign in Hell with him instead of obeying our Lord and Savior’s stupid set of Commandments. The wisest decision Hackford makes as a director is letting Pacino run wild during the movie’s slyly ambitious end, which is really nothing more than two actors monologuing at one another about the potential rewards of flipping the bird to the Heavens. It’s an utterly captivating double barrel blast of chest pounding hysterics, threatening at any moment to completely careen off the rails. But it never does, because both Pacino and Reeves are that good.
If anyone is saddled with a somewhat thankless role, it’s Charlize Theron. Mary Ann is the symbol of purity The Devil’s AdvocateThe Devil’s Advocate to create a time capsule of what New York was like in the mid-to-late '90s – a freshly polished metropolis that only hid ancient gargoyles from plain sight. In its glass and steel ivory towers lurk the most sinister evil: Old Money maniacs waiting to gobble up and spit out those who think they can impinge upon their territory. Theron’s Mary Ann thus becomes a tragic casualty of a world she thought offered a wealth of opportunity, but instead only acts as a harbor for depraved demons.
While trying to convince Kevin to join his side and conquer the world, John Milton refers to himself as the “last humanist”, and ultimately this is the entire argument The Devil’s Advocate poses. What if we gave in and let evil rule the world? Furthermore, what if evil was actually looking out for us more than the forces of good? In a way, Milton’s ruse makes a great deal of rational sense. We can comprehend the results of letting evil reign much easier than we can the innocent sacrifices the Lord takes every day via car crashes, freak accidents and inexplicably labeled Acts of God. The destruction of others in order to reap Earthly rewards seems like minor losses when compared to the pleasures their continued existences may impede. Milton urges Kevin (who, by the last act, is basically a stand-in for all of mankind) to think about the futility of following God’s Law in order to gain entrance into a Heaven that may not even be worth it in the end. In this way, the Devil is actually looking out for us more than God ever will. He wants us to enjoy ourselves while we’re alive and forget living solely for an afterlife. But the very nature of free will means that we have to make the decision for ourselves. All John Milton wants is for us to hear him out, because he may not be wrong.