The Devil’s Advocate at 25: The Insanely Wild Legal Thriller and Horror Hybrid

Disclaimer: This feature article contains spoilers.

Vanity, definitely my favourite sin.

That pretty much sums up Al Pacino’s theatrical acting style as John Milton in The Devil’s Advocate. The movie was already 25 years old since it was first released on October 17, 1997. Despite the all-star leads of Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves, the movie could only settle for No. 2 during the opening weekend with US$12.1 million while I Know What You Did Last Summer took the top spot instead. Still, it managed to make a killing at the worldwide box office with US$153 million against its US$57 million budget.

Back to Al Pacino’s John Milton, the mixed feeling that I had over the decades each time I revisited The Devil’s Advocate remains the same as ever. This is especially true during the bonkers, all-hell-breaks-loose third act, where Al Pacino goes — well — full Pacino style with his extended monologue revealing his true identity and of course, his intention of why he picked Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) in the first place. There’s a twist too, which I would discuss later on.

As much as I enjoyed his rant during the third act, the whole thing feels like it was a bold attempt to venture into the black-comedy route. It was as if director Taylor Hackford, working from an adapted screenplay by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy, wanted to experiment with multiple genres in a single movie. For the record, I didn’t read Andrew Neiderman’s 1990 novel of the same name so I just based my opinion solely on the movie’s perspective. Hackford even meshes a legal thriller in the guise of a horror genre and even a dash of morality play, where the latter can be seen during the final scene of the movie. A scene that remains divisive even after all these decades, where we learn Kevin Lomax has been dreaming the what-if scenario all this time while staring in the mirror inside a washroom.

The whole scenario that he sold his soul to the devil — both literally and figuratively — and the devil (in disguise) itself refers to John Milton, the head of a top law firm in New York, is served as a cautionary tale about how vanity can wreak his life both personally and professionally. The ending, of course, traces back to the beginning of the movie, where Lomax represents a client named Lloyd Gettys (Chris Bauer), a schoolteacher who is accused of child molestation. He is looking for an angle to twist the fact (we do see Lomax noticing the way his client’s suggestive gesture under the table during the trial) and makes him not guilty of the charges.

Besides, we also learn that Lomax never lost a case. 64 of them, to be exact and he’ll do whatever means necessary regardless of how morally or legally unethical it turns out to be. To Lomax, winning is everything and he loves every minute of it. It was a result that got him an offer he can’t refuse from the aforementioned New York law firm. Not only he is being paid handsomely but also gets to stay in a posh penthouse with his beautiful wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron).

As Kevin begins working at the law firm and continues his winning streak, he is so preoccupied with his job and his own excessive pride. Working with the devil got him more tempted than ever which caused him to sink deeper into the dark side. He may have been smart and knows well about manipulating the law like the back of his hand. But not smart enough to realise he’s being played all the while. How Milton sweet-talk him from the moment they met in the office and at one point, their conversation took place on an outdoor infinity pool-rooftop garden and it was undoubtedly a magnificent sight. Lomax also can’t take his eyes off his stunning co-worker Christabella (Connie Nielsen) and even though he loves his wife very much, he can’t help himself fantasise about her when he made love with Mary Ann.

Mary Ann, in the meantime, doesn’t share the same happiness that Lomax has been enjoying after moving from Florida to New York. It’s all smoke and mirrors for her, despite all the abundant luxury that she gets to enjoy as a housewife. After getting acquainted with her next-door neighbour, Jackie (Tamara Tunie), she begins to see things. Unpleasant things from seeing Jackie as a devil in disguise to a bizarre but violent nightmare, where she finds a child in the bathroom playing with her ovaries. It gets worse from there that we see how cheerful and feisty she is from the beginning, only to grow gradually more depressed and delusional as the movie moves on.

It was a convincing transformation, thanks to Charlize Theron’s subtle supporting turn. Mary Ann loses her sanity to the point she claimed she was raped by Milton and when Lomax finds her in the church, she subsequently reveals her naked body filled with nasty cuts and bruises from head to toe — one of the few disturbing scenes that still resonates even today. Mary Ann’s insanity proves that all the temptations are too overwhelming and her endless suffering, coupled with her increasingly estranged relationship with Lomax caused her to commit suicide.

Now, going back to the ending, Lomax finds out that Milton is his father all along. Lomax’s too-good-to-be-true winning streak in every case has something to do with Milton pulling strings behind the scenes. You see, Milton wants him and Christabella — who turns out to be Lomax’s half-sister — to make love so he can have a child. It was a plan that Milton desired the most, only to have his plan backfire after Lomax chooses to commit suicide in front of him by blowing his head off with a gun. A result that rages Milton and causing to burst into flames and turned into a fallen angel.

This makes the “all the while it’s just a dream” moment feel jarring. More like a cop-out ending that even with all the moral intentions Lomax is given a second chance to make the right choice. As in the right choice not to continue the corrupted path into the darkness of representing his client. Ultimately, he changes his mind after recess and there goes the happy ending with Lomax and his wife.

Despite the baffling finale, it’s not every day that we have a major studio picture willing to risk it all for such a genre-bending movie as The Devil’s Advocate. Frankly, I’m not sure whether they will greenlight such a movie in today’s movie landscape. It was devilishly fun (sorry, can’t help it) if not for the ending and it helps to have Al Pacino on board chewing scenery like never before. He’s very good at this no matter how wild and preposterous the movie is. Keanu Reeves, on the other hand, made the right choice playing a hotshot lawyer in this movie after declining to return as Jack Traven in the ill-fated and shouldn’t-have-made Speed 2: Cruise Control.