The Devil’s Advocate (1997) is loosely based on a novel by Andrew Neiderman (which wasn’t very well received), but director Taylor Hackford emphasizes the influence of John Milton’s Paradise Lost and delivers a slow-burning thriller that reveals new insights with each viewing. Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) has never lost a case, and when he and his wife move from Gainesville, Florida, to New York City, they find themselves “swimming with the sharks” of an law firm run by the devil and his minions. Throughout the film, we get the feeling that Milton (Al Pacino), the head of an internationally renowned law firm, is “bad,” and we are pretty sure that he’s the devil well before all-star defense attorney Kevin comes to this conclusion.
When he begins working for Milton, Chadwick, & Waters, Kevin’s never lost a case (64 straight conviction), and he begins to realize that he’s been defending guilty clients once his wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), experiences strange visions in his absence. Their dreams of having a baby together is threatened as Kevin becomes more and more entrenched in his work.
We discover at the film’s conclusion that Milton is Kevin’s father, and that his colleague, Isabella, is Kevin’s half-sister. The devil wants a child, a family, but Kevin has to volunteer. Feeling that all is lost after Mary Ann commits suicide, Kevin realizes the only way to beat the devil is to deny him his wishes. Kevin shoots himself in the head, exercising the only power he has left: free will. Satan loses his son and the possibility of having an heir (the Anti-Christ).
The film ends where it begins; everything comes full circle. Kevin awakens in the bathroom of the courthouse, staring at his own reflection in the mirror -- a moment in time we experience at the beginning of the film in which Kevin is defending an alleged child molester. Instead of defending a man he’s sure is guilty, he has a second chance to do the right thing. He tells the judge that he can no longer represent his client and is sure that he will be disbarred for his actions. He “began the case with a clear conscience,” but Kevin Lomax is a different man now. He has seen the error of his ways, and after seeing Mary Ann again alive and happy, he’s determined to engage in an act of historical correction in order to preserve what he would otherwise lose.
But his vanity gets the best of him. Larry, a local reporter, begs for an exclusive, stroking Kevin’s ego, and the young lawyer finally gives in, telling Larry to call him tomorrow. Kevin and Mary Ann descend the stairs, and Larry morphs into John Milton: “Vanity. Definitely my favorite sin,” Milton says with a laugh, before credits roll against a sea of fire and the Rolling Stones singing “Paint it Black.”
The film is somewhat surreal in its presentation. Milton appears in two places at once, for example: Kevin sees him in the courtroom, yet Mary Ann claims Milton sexually assaulted her during this time. After Mary Ann’s commits suicide in the psychiatric wing, Pam, Kevin’s assistant, tells him Milton’s waiting for him and that he’ll take that pain away. Kevin walks from the hospital down an empty New York street. No cars, no pedestrians. Where is this place? It’s just one big test, Mary Ann tells Kevin, so perhaps the majority of the film is Kevin’s test, which exists in some alternative reality.
The Devil’s Advocate is one of my favorite films because I learn something new with each subsequent viewing. There are so many layers to this slow-burning erotic thriller, and the ending is something that escapes any sound logic, but Hackford’s film resonates with fresh takes on temptation and redemption that extend beyond any common film with the devil as a central character.