Friday, November 6, 2015

The Devil's Advocate (1997)

In a comment I recently posted on this blog, I recalled a glancing childhood encounter I had with the movie The Devil's Advocate. Then I saw it was available on Netflix, so I decided to give it a watch. I'd be surprised if I were alone in this, but when I was a kid, I had the habit of periodically checking the TV Guide to see if any salacious movies were playing on late night television that I could stay up and watch in secret. You know, the sort of things your parents don't want you to see. I was primarily on the lookout for titles containing sexual content (although exceedingly rare - in spite of what moralists claim about modern media and popular culture). I don't know if I thought a movie about the devil would be more likely to contain perverted material (not an unjustified assumption, as it turns out), or if I was simply seduced by the thought of settling in for a macabre tale about the darker side of human imagination.

At any rate, I was disappointed to find out that The Devil's Advocate is less a story about the denizens of hell, than it is about a corrupt law firm (Wolfram & Hart, anyone?) in New York City. It does, however, touch upon the darkness that resides in the hearts of some men, and there is a character that is supposed to be the devil, albeit in human form. I guess I was spoiled by my fearful reverence for the movie Legend, with Tim Curry decked out in red body paint, glowing contacts, and horns bigger than his head. I get the feeling a lot of people consider that traditional interpretation of the devil to be kind of cheesy (and as one who has dabbled in paganism, I should be more concerned that its genesis came from the jealous desecration of a previous, non-Christian god), but hell, I'm a sucker for it.

And anyway, though it might not be the movie I wanted it to be, The Devil's Advocate is actually still really good. Keanu Reeves stars as Kevin Lomax, a hotshot small-town lawyer transposed into the big city, who has a crisis of conscience when he's asked to defend an accused murderer. It's one thing to write a character that's a brilliant lawyer who's never lost a case, but this movie does an excellent job of convincingly demonstrating his talents, and his ability to put the best possible spin on the worst case scenario, for the sake of his clients. The symbolic interpretation of "the devil's advocate" as a criminal defense attorney - a person who attempts to defend, for professional purposes, individuals accused of wrongdoing - while not the kind of literal devil's advocate I wanted to see, is a very clever appropriation of the phrase.

Of course, the whole concept of a fair trial, and the right of accused persons to a proper defense in court, is the foundation of our very justice system. And lawyers who defend avowed criminals are not defending evil so much as they are defending the very principle of justice itself. But at the same time, you have to consider that some (if not many) of these people really are guilty. And while it's only fair to give people the benefit of the doubt - that's what "innocent until proven guilty" is all about - what do you do if you're convinced that your client really is guilty, and deserves to be punished? Do you favor your professional reputation, or your moral conscience? That's the question Kevin Lomax struggles with in this movie, but his position is muddied significantly by his own vanity. And that's where the devil steps in.

Al Pacino plays John Milton, head of a vastly successful international law firm, who, upon hearing of Kevin Lomax's undefeated reputation, practically throws money at him to get him to work at his firm. But there's more to John Milton than meets the eye. Al Pacino plays a very understated, but still very convincing interpretation of the devil. Again, it's a different type of devil than I wanted to see, but it's still a very compelling one. He's not some evil monster that attacks people, rather he is the seducer, who delights in watching man be corrupted by his own base desires. The entire last half hour of the movie is dedicated to a thrilling verbal confrontation - a battle of wills, as it were - in which John Milton insults God and convincingly describes himself as a humanist. It's so effective that, by the end, you're thinking that he can only be wrong because he's the devil, not because you can find any flaw in any of his arguments, or fault any of what he stands for.

Jeffrey Jones and Craig T. Nelson both also star, as does Charlize Theron, as Kevin Lomax's wife. But if I had to be honest, her whole character arc of going crazy because her husband is a workaholic feels overwrought and saturated with sexist stereotypes of the irrational, over-emotional woman whose life and sanity depend on her ability to make a baby. It forms the weak leg of the tripod in this movie. Another stereotype that this movie panders to is the one that characterizes any sex offender that (to quote Nabokov) "hankers for some throbbing, sweet-moaning, physical but not necessarily coital relation with a girl-child" as a soulless monster without conscience, and, more specifically, a murderer just waiting to paradoxically strike out against the target of his affections. This is prime evidence of the confusion between sex and violence. I mean, if you can understand the rationalization for this behavior - "I like you, you make me feel good, so I'm going to kill you" - then you're a better psychologist than I. But it plays into the devil's argument that "evil" is just a man who chooses to indulge his instincts, and it's a small hiccup in an otherwise very good movie.

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