The Highway to Hell: Paved by What Happened in Monterey
In most every courtroom exchange, one side is destined to lose their fight, so it stands to reason that at least fifty percent of the population, at any given moment, detests the legal profession. As a coping mechanism, lawyer jokes are one of the inevitable casualties of the litigious, highly adversarial society in which we live. Hell, I needed a cache of wisecracks just to make it through law school in a relatively sane manner. Of these, my favorite joke referred to what a family law attorney and a gynecologist had in common, that is, that nobody visits their respective offices when the situation is (for lack of a better term) “looking good.” Still, most of us begrudgingly accept that our American legal system is flawed, but it’s a helluva lot better than any of the alternatives out there, particularly when it comes to the arguably higher stakes of criminal law. We also generally agree with William Blackstone’s infamous statement, “[B]etter that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer,” which forms the basis of our own American justice system. From a crime victim’s perspective, our own U.S. Constitution may very well twist itself into convulsions to protect the rights of criminal defendants, but, to protect the wrongly accused, this is a necessary evil.
In 1997, the public was still wary of the profession of law as spectacle, as in O.J. Simpson’s so-called “dream team” of lawyers. So, the time was right for The Devil’s Advocate, in which the head of a prestigious Manhattan law firm just happens to be…. Satan, to bring its own form of justice to theaters. This film isn’t, by any means, a flawless cinematic work, but Director Taylor Hackford (Dolores Claiborne, An Officer and a Gentleman), adapting Andrew Neiderman’s novel, manages to create a damn entertaining film that is anchored by excellent performances (even Keanu Reeves, who does his best work here) and a solid script that minimizes the few unavoidable logical gaps present. Hackford’s remarkable attention to detail leads to lush and sweeping atmospheric heights, but, to his credit, he (mostly) restrains the use of special effects to the film’s final showdown. This keeps the film’s focus on the development of the characters and their dialogue-heavy interactions. The genre-defying result is, at times, satiric, but also equal parts supernatural thriller, black comedy, and morality play.
Although The Devil’s Advocate spans over two hours in length, the film wastes no time, in its very first moments, getting to the point of the entire film. During the opening scene, a young, Southern attorney, Kevin Lomax (Reeves), is about to see his entirely unbroken string of victories, not to mention his soul, be tested. Kevin believes in the innocence of his defendant, a math teacher who has been accused of molesting a female student. However, during the testimony of the victim, Kevin happens to observe behavior from his client that causes him, as an attorney, to suddenly realize that his own client is guilty. During a court recess, Kevin retreats to the washroom to wrestle with this unforeseen and, to him, entirely foreign dilemma of whether he should side with his profession’s Code of Professional Responsibility (which requires zealous advocacy) or his own personal ethics. After a brief exchange with a smartass reporter (Neal Jones)—who, disgustingly, shows up twice in this film to take a leak and not bother washing his hands—Kevin realizes that he cannot stomach losing his first case. So, he sides with vanity (even checks his teeth in the mirror) and decides to win the case (“Lose? I don’t lose. I win. I win! I’m a lawyer! That’s my job! That’s what I do!”).
With this test passed and despite the warnings of his Bible-grasping mother (Judith Ivey), Kevin, along with his sixth sense and gorgeous wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), is lured to the New York City the law firm of John Milton (Al Pacino). Life then becomes an assortment of, at first, vaguely unsettling characters who begin to show fleeting signs of a diabolical nature. Theron does an incredible job of portraying the tough, rowdy Southern er who slowly descends into madness as she sees people turn into demons (through quick glimpses of physical effects and some cleverly blended digital imaging). As Kevin grows increasingly committed to his work, Mary Ann’s loneliness allows her to, eventually, fully grasp the evil around her, which her prior support (and even sexual excitement) of Kevin’s previous achievements has helped to bring about. Mary Ann’s ultimate rejection of this evil and her character’s resulting transformation play out as a sacrifice of sorts, which allows Milton to set the stage for him to, presumably, execute the final phase of his plan, a grandchild. After all, Milton may be an all-powerful entity, but his street-wise, subway-riding Devil enjoys the challenge of winning over someone’s free will. The Devil could have easily wiped out Mary Ann early in the game, but, fortunately, he did not, as her character also serves as an audience barometer of creepiness.
As John Milton, Pacino’s every millisecond on screen is calculated, and the notorious over acting that plagues so many other recent Pacino performances couldn’t be more appropriate here. His very presence seems larger than his own body, particularly during the film’s infamous final scene, in which Milton becomes so exhilarated that he actually starts dancing when he realizes that his half-good, half-evil son may be coming along in favor of dear old decrepit dad. In contrast to Pacino’s over-the-top acting here, Keanu Reeves carves his performance with a blunt instrument and almost forms a blank slate for a great deal of the film. Ironically, it works here, and the two actors play off each other even as Christabella (Connie Nielsen) attempts to seduce her half-brother, who is still covered in the sacrificial blood of his own wife. From this powerful scene to the one involving Milton’s rooftop water garden on top of the Continental Building, Milton tempts Kevin with all that can be his. And, yes, this is about a hell of a lot more than mere lawyering.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.
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