The Devil's Advocate is great entertainment; horrible ending
The Devil's Advocate
If there is one thing that bothers me about Hollywood films it's their predictable endings. The Devil's Advocate has the atypical Hollywood ending, when everything that should happen does. Unfortunately for The Devil's Advocate, this ending nearly collapses in on itself, and ruins the entire film. Nevertheless, the film does provide two and a half hours of pure entertainment (note to self: kill whomever was in charge of the previews for this film). I don't think I was quite prepared for this movie because the trailers made it appear to be some supernatural horror film about Satan. Well, it does contain this element, but what is not mentioned in the ads is the other plot elements (and seemingly more interesting ones at that).
The Devil's Advocate begins in Florida with an ongoing trial in session. Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) is the defense attorney, working for a client whom has been accused of raping a young girl. He ends up with a not-guilty verdict, despite an emotional testimony from the victim (Heather Matarazzo). He leaves the courthouse with his lovely wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) where he is approached with an offer to travel to New York City to help choose a good jury. He accepts (mainly after seeing the paycheck he will receive) and he flies to New York with his wife. After proving his worth for selecting juries (and his perfect winning streak in court), the head of the firm, John Milton (Al Pacino), asks him to work permanently as a criminal lawyer. He graciously accepts, where he is treated almost as a god. He is given an incredible apartment (which is bigger than my entire house now), and a hefty paycheck. His life seems to be on the rise.
And of course, his life suddenly begins to waver and slowly decline. He is attracted to fellow employee Christabella (Connie Nielson), and his wife begins to feel very lonely in her large apartment. Mary Ann takes up a friendship with a neighbor who always gives advice, especially if it is not wanted. Meanwhile, Kevin nabs a case surrounding Alexander Cullen (Craig T. Nelson) who apparently murdered three people. He spends hours upon hours with this case, while forgetting his loving wife, who may or may not be going insane. All of this while John Milton may or may not be the devil himself.
After a while, things turn completely upside-down, as Kevin's wife claims to have seen monstrous images superimposed on her friends. A fellow employee is murdered in the park, and his mother (Judith Ivey) reveals information about Kevin's real father. Is it all just a big nightmare? Or is John Milton really Satan, playing tricks with Kevin's life? The Devil's Advocate plays out fairly straight-forward, but for some odd reason, the screenwriters wanted to surprise everyone by giving us something we don't expect. Is this surprise conclusion supposed to make us feel good and go home without feeling depressed or disturbed? If so, The Devil's Advocate messes up completely, and ironically, I felt more depressed because of the ending as is now, than I would have if it had ended ten minutes early.
I went into The Devil's Advocate expecting a shocking horror film, and that is exactly what I got. I was settled in to be disturbed mentally and emotionally, and that is what I got. But what was the most disturbing and horrible aspect of the movie is the poor ending (did I mention that I didn't like the ending?). The producers of this film take you on a thrilling roller coaster ride and just as it is ending, they pull the rug out from under you. Films like Se7en and The Usual Suspects can survive with this surprise ending because it is expected, more or less. We know it is going to end in an unpredictable way. The Devil's Advocate, on the other hand, ends unpredictably, not from us knowing a lot, but knowing nothing at all. If that is confusing, I recommend watching the film, and then reading that again.
As for the film overall, I enjoyed the entire first two hours, being drawn in by a terrific character study and then adding the supernatural plot to increase the tension build from the character study. The film runs like a well-built clock, slowly building until finally exploding with a highly charged climax (and an unpredictable one at that). And then you settle in for a nice resolution, which does not occur. It was at this point that I felt cheated. Taking us on a terror ride of intrigue, we follow Kevin Lomax around, as he is the centerpiece of the film. Everything occurs from his perspective. He is our representation on screen (sort of). But we are forced to witness a conclusion which makes most of the film seem like a game. I don't want to spoil the ending, so all I can say is go see the film and decide for yourself.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about The Devil's Advocate is the extreme amount of everything. It earned its R rating for a reason. There is plenty of nudity, sex, violence, gore, and then you have gore, violence, sex, and more nudity. This film really isn't subtle about anything, showing us everything. It actually surprises me that this film did not receive an NC-17 rating, as it is quite harsh. However, the movie does have its merits, and nudity and sex are among those. I don't condone sex and nudity in films, but if its there, I might as well enjoy it. The biggest merit of this film is also the most interesting to watch. The confrontations between Kevin Lomax and John Milton are entertaining, but what stands out amidst this extreme hatred is the decline of the wife, Mary Ann. Portrayed by the extremely effective Charlize Theron, Mary Ann's problems are incredibly intense, and I found myself wanting to witness her decline. This may sound uncaring, but I wanted to watch because I felt sorry for her. She is the most interesting character on the screen, who is forced into a world where she is not wanted.
Something The Devil's Advocate contained actually shocked me for reasons other than extreme violence and nudity, especially for a film of this nature. The story actually has something to say about humanity. In one of the last scenes, John Milton explains to Kevin Lomax the game God plays with his children (he is Satan, of course). He comments that it is human nature to lust and loathe in vanity. Then, God sets up rules which contradict human nature. This semi-religious bashing is more humorous than frightening. What Milton says is so true about our society that I found myself laughing out loud, partially thinking it was funny, but patially realizing it was true. These moral dilemmas are present throughout The Devil's Advocate, giving it an added depth many films skip over in their writing (but I'm sure they came straight from the novel it was based on). When a film has something to say about our society, it deserves to be watched.
The cast of The Devil's Advocate is one of the highlights, as we see memorable faces, and they put spins on those memorable faces we don't expect. Heather Matarazzo makes a brief appearance as the terrorized victim in the opening court case, and she does a great job. Probably the big surprise of this film is Keanu Reeves. He has proven himself an uneven actor (successes such as Speed and bombs such as Johnny Mnemonic), but he tops himself with this performance. I have never seen him more believable to date. Al Pacino is of course the scene stealer. His devilish performance is equal to those of Jack Nicholson (The Witches of Eastwick) and Max von Sydow (Needful Things). He could have easily gone too far over the top in many scenes, but he remains completely believable (if that is the correct term). Jeffrey Jones (mostly known as the principal in Ferris Bueller's Day Off) also gives a good performance as Eddie Barzoon. Judith Ivey manages a credible performance as the mother who holds a secret to Kevin's past. Connie Nielson is very effective in her role, and she also appears naked several times. One familiar face with a twist was "Coach" star, Craig T. Nelson, who gives a very good performance.
The Devil's Advocate is rated R for sexuality, nudity, violence, language, and some gore. At 144 minutes, this film moves along fairly quickly. For the first two hours, I sat completely engaged in the good performances and strong characters. The technical quality is also remarkable, with great special effects and a good musical score. Director Taylor Hackford has managed to create a very disturbing motion picture, only to ruin a good chunk of tension with the final fifteen minutes. I guess my biggest problem with the ending is the fact that I went into the theater expecting a disturbing film, and Hackford gave me just that for a long time. But just before the end, he got jitterish and relied on the Hollywood safety net in order to make his film more mainstream. Personally, I would have preferred it ending fifteen minutes early.
*** out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie