This is the eighth in the Anti-Monitor series, where it’s believed that some films are best reviewed with the utmost incredulity. This week, Matt Fleming and myself take a look back at Taylor Hackford’s debauched horror-law saga, Devil’s Advocate. We discuss the disastrously slippery slope of Keanu Reeves performing with an accent, Al Pacino’s big-ass teeth, and the distracting prospect of a continuously disrobing Charlize Theron. As always, be wary of spoilers throughout, and please enjoy.
DR: Well, here we are. Another circumstance wherein we both enjoy a movie we shouldn’t, and starring Keanu Reeves to boot. A pattern is developing.
Matt: You said it. Everything about this movie’s premise is insane, and if you change a single element, it’s a train wreck. But Keanu, Pacino, everything falls so perfectly into place. I’m terrified of the universe that exists in which they make this without Pacino.
DR: There wasn’t anyone else to play this role, was there?
Matt: Al Pacino turned this script down five times. After some rewrites, he finally acquiesced, thank Satan. The only person I can imagine having as much fun with the role of Beelzebub is probably Nicolas Cage, who couldn’t pass for Keanu’s dad.
DR: Naw, probably not. What bugs me about this movie is that the whole twist ending – which, given with the incredibly unsubtle foreshadowing this film is pockmarked with, isn’t really a surprise – is blown by the film’s trailers and promos. When I saw this in 1997, I already knew the Devil. All subtlety is fucked after that. For Chrissakes, it’s even in the title.
Matt: That is the underlying problem with marketing movies to Americans in the last twenty years or so. Also, unless you change the title, the whole thing is pretty obvious, but once you get over the spoiler, you can focus on the incredible, bat-shit journey.
DR: Considering its context, and its um, subtext, the title works a little too well. I can’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that was Tony Gilroy’s innovation. The man is simply too clever for his own good.
Matt: I’d like to read the book, just to see how it parallels. No matter the source of the material, the cast is “off the chain,” and Taylor Hackford lets them have as much fun as they can. Seriously, how much fun did these people seem to be having? Charlize Theron eats up Mary Ann’s descent into madness, demon sex and all.
DR: I’ve seen this movie several times – it’s one of my favorites. But one thing has always kinda stuck in my craw a bit. Charlize Theron absolutely nails her role as a woman coming undone, but as her life – and her hold on reality – unwraps, so too does her clothing. Sane and happy – clothed. Moderately distressed – nightgown. Depressed and unnerved – panties, tank top. Completely fucked – nude. If Theron wasn’t so damn good in this movie, I’d probably hate it for this.
Matt: It makes total sense. She’s losing her grip on sanity and her humanity. She’s debasing to a primal level, and her mind can’t keep up. That’s why most people who lose their minds similarly lose their clothes (I think). I mean, how would you handle actual demon-face-morphing? If I saw that in real life, I’d have to lose at least my pants.
DR: Point. I dunno. When you cast someone like Charlize Theron – especially in those days – that deterioration becomes… well. It becomes distracting, let me put it that way. For me, it nearly undermines the story. But as I said before, her performance undercuts any objectification.
Matt: I think this is a story that justifies some nudity and sex, which would have been done to excess by a director hackier than Hackford. Compared to Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, which arrived two years later, the sex in this movie at least makes sense, as opposed to the entirety of The Ninth Gate.
DR: Truth. There’s a level of depravity that needs to be present in a film like this, one that lies just above the surface of the common day world. There’s a deliberate reason that this story takes place in pre-Y2K New York City: there, no one blinked when everyone with money was misbehaving this way. This movie was relevant before we knew just how bad everything was going to get.
Matt: That’s right. It is believable, the idea that the Devil runs a shady law firm, bent on creating chaos out of order. The ceramic wig that Pacino used for teeth, not quite as plausible.
DR: Those are his teeth. Yellowed by tobacco and big as fuck, those have always been his teeth. I can’t vouch for now – it being 2014 and all, and he’s what, 70? – but in ’97 THOSE WERE HIS TEETH.
Matt: I’m pretty sure those are implants.
DR: Mmf. I remember in ’97, I was going to Ypsi High, and there was this girl in my Drama class, and I remember having this big ol’ crush on her. Can’t remember her name for the life of me, but she had this tremendous boner for Al Pacino. Devil’s Advocate was one of her favorite movies that year. She wouldn’t stop talking about him. If those teeth are fake – or implants, or whatever – I’m Duck l’Orange. Women can tell.
Matt: You just called a high school girl a woman.
DR: I suppose I did. But for the ones we truly loved, they certainly seemed like women, didn’t they?
Matt: Anyway… I have a rule against Keanu Reeves and accents, but when he teeters between keeping it and losing it, it’s amazing. He definitely can’t yell a southern accent, but he’s got the wily charm down.
DR: He definitely got the “Florida Stud” thing down pat. Hackford’s flourishes with the alligator boots and the pan-around shots of Reeves looking away with his jawline in perfect view probably also helped. But yeah. Reeves and accents don’t typically mix. I was just reading about how much shit he got for attempting an English accent for Francis Coppola’s Dracula. But then I remember watching Dracula, and I feel that most of all of it was justified.
Matt: Dracula and Much Ado About Nothing are two movies that Keanu is distractingly bad in, and his voice is reason number one. Surfers don’t hang out with vampires or recite Shakespeare. In Devil’s Advocate, he is so charming. His humanity ultimately wins, he’s got the old man’s swagger.
DR: Pacino’s very presence makes Reeves work harder. I’m sure he wanted to be as on point as possible with Michael Corleone being on set every single day. I can’t blame him. That would certainly account for the man dropping his salary to a paltry one million for Pacino to get bug-fuck paid to play Satan. Reeves has integrity, and it shows for real in Devil’s Advocate, which is why watching that integrity erode into sin feels like fun. Even with all the pseudo-legal jargon, this movie remains fun.
Matt: And nobody has as much fun as Pacino. That whole climax in his office is incredible. You quote his monologue often, and let’s be honest, he drives a hard bargain. I don’t know that I would have Kevin Lomax-level control in that situation.
DR: Reeves’ character, Lomax, is one strident fellow. His character has great strength of will. “Are we negotiating?” he asks at one point early on in the film, but negotiating is something this guy has been doing his whole life. One does not simply become a lawyer. You have to be good at bullshit well before law school becomes an option. And Lomax bullshits well. Hackford and Gilroy try to make Lomax and his girlfriend Mary Ann seem as naive as possible, lambs to the slaughter, but all their success is derived on the misery of others. Mary Ann repossessed cars before they moved to New York, for crying in the mud.
Matt: They begin as pretty unsympathetic characters who are ultimately only saved by love, which is hokey. When the mom retells her childhood seduction story, she says, “nobody ever really talked to me before,” proving that everyone has a weakness for attention, or further, vanity. Mary Ann changed her hair completely just because Pacino made her super horny. Rather than fully embrace these negatives, at Milton’s request, they are redeemed by their ability to admit wrongness, and they ultimately prove humanity is not completely weak. Well, except that both Kevin and Mary Ann kill themselves. There goes that theory.
DR: Yeah, that fell apart pretty quick. And they weren’t saved by love. They weren’t saved by anything. Kevin and Mary Ann kill themselves because of Kevin’s vanity, Mary Ann’s vanity, and ultimately, because of their weakness as a couple and as individuals. It’s all in Pacino’s final monologue. He’s had his nose in it from the very beginning; he knows. We’re all willing to indulge because when we do, it’s bliss. And he’s offering bliss on tap. If you have any scruples at all, if the devil is offering the world in exchange for your soul, the only rational thing to do is to kill yourself. I’d probably ask him, “we negotiating?”
Matt: And he’d respond, “No, now all you’re getting is a burrito and a handshake. You’re fired.”
DR: There are two things this film relies upon: our accepted conventions of law procedural and abject horror. And while this film offers both in abundance, there’s an issue with its cohesion. Mary Ann’s “hallucinations”, for example. The poor woman is being figuratively led through the caverns, but she can’t smell the sulfur until someone shows her how ugly things are going to get. That’s another thing that always bugged me about this movie (even though I still love it): it handles the courtroom proceedings well and it handles the sinister, hideous villainy well, but never once does Gilroy’s screenplay mix the two into a functional alchemy. All the movie does is make me feel dizzy.
Matt: By the time the two worlds converge, there are ten minutes or less left in the film. I think the movie would benefit from giving Kevin a bit more of a glimpse into the abyss before he discovers Milton’s long game. Honestly, this movie could stand to be a little longer, but I think it still functions pretty well. The murder of Jeffrey Jones gets me every time, how creeped out he is, although he knows he can’t outrun the devil. Also, this scene seems to posit that homeless people are the devil, which is harsh.
DR: There’s a lot that the movie wants to say, and fortunately, it has Al Pacino as its mouthpiece. He pontificates on the dire situation in which contemporary man has found himself embroiled, offering no recourse other than to mire in it. When it’s put that way, being fucked doesn’t sound so bad. Let’s all go down with the ship.
Matt: In the end, Kevin seems to posit that humanity can save itself, but Milton’s returning presence reminds us that through all the altruism, the devil is always in the details.
ANTI-MONITOR: MATT – In Devil’s Advocate, Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves take a difficult premise and run with it to great success. The movie is gripping and suspenseful, yet as campy as the best dime-store paperback. Thankfully, Taylor Hackford ensures that the two actors have enough space to play in this Satanic sandbox. The film oozes between the seven deadly sins, before ultimately removing the veil and casting judgment upon humanity, but not without revealing a sliver of hope. This movie is tantalizing, terrorizing, and disturbing, sometimes to the point of discomfort.
Keanu Reeves makes for a well-balanced protagonist, both charming and naive, although his southern accent has trouble sticking. Reeves could be whistling dixie the whole time, and it wouldn’t matter: this is Al Pacino’s movie. Pacino is unsettlingly effective as the dark lord, bringing serious skeeviness to the role, and at times making a convincing argument to join the army of the damned. Pacino’s Satan is a disgruntled ex-employee who wants to bring down the old corporation by indulging in its excess. While we must empathize with the side of good (er, God), Pacino’s glamorous lifestyle of sex, drugs, money and murder tempt both Kevin and the viewer, necessitating a recalibration of one’s moral compass to return to true north.
ANTI-MONITOR: JARROD – Taylor Hackford’s Devil’s Advocate precariously balances its 144 minute running time with sinister ambition and giddily campy horror. A lesser filmmaker might have taken its lurid trappings of sex and violence and inflated it into a gooey, sticky mess, but Hackford (who would go on to direct Jamie Foxx to an Oscar with Ray) brings a certain sophistication to the proceedings, making the baleful promises that seduction bring go far beyond tempting. He makes bad look so right.
What also helps to keep it a classy affair is the presence – and undeniable charisma – of Al Pacino, who portrays the titular Wicked One with a tobacco-scorched chutzpah that easily recalls Walter Huston’s Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Webster. And like William Dieterle’s 1941 film there has to be a fall guy, some poor dope who teeters just far enough towards the abyss that to cause him to finally submit would require only the simplest nudge.
To fill the shoes worn by James Craig all those years ago is Keanu Reeves – who is far better than he has any right to be – as Kevin Lomax, a Florida-born shitheel of a lawyer who has made a career freeing the worst society has ever created. Once Reeves is welcomed into Pacino’s lair with open arms, temptation soon follows. If you were to take a moment to breathe it all in, you’d find the unmistakable scent of brimstone.
CONSENSUS: Wicked and never, ever joyless, Devil’s Advocate is a film for those who never fear the devil inside.