**Content Warning: Though this article will only briefly mention these, the film has two scenes of sexual violence, suicide, and incest. There are also other violent and gory scenes. Find a complete list of warnings here. Be careful if/when watching. This review does contain spoilers. **
Hello spooky pals, welcome back to this (probably) prolonged celebration of my favorite time of year. This week, I’ll be shifting from the light-hearted cult classic Killer Klowns from Outer Space and going to a dramatic and supernatural psychological thriller- Devil’s Advocate. This movie stars celebrated actors such as Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino, and Charlize Theron and is based on the book of the same name by Andrew Neiderman. It explores morality, the corrupt legal system of the United States, religion, and ethics. By the end, we are forced to critically reflect on ourselves and our choices.
The movie starts with a young girl testifying against the teacher who sexually assaulted her. The scene is intense, emotional, and simply heartbreaking. Small details in camera angle and movement indicate that the director wants the viewer to know the young girl is telling the truth even though her story is at times inconsistent. Despite all of this, Kevin Lomax (Reeves), the teacher’s defense attorney, introduces evidence that brings just enough reasonable doubt, gaining a not-guilty verdict. This seemingly impossible-to-win case is yet another win for Lomax, making him one of the most successful lawyers in Florida. He is recruited by a firm in New York to help select a jury in another seemingly unwinnable case.
Lomax’s religious mother sternly objects to his leaving with his wife Mary Ann (Theron), noting “‘Fallen, fallen, is Babylon the great. It has become a dwelling place of demons.’ Revelation 18.” In his mother’s mind, New York is Babylon — a sinful city about to fall. Despite her warnings, Lomax and Mary Ann go to New York, eventually making the move permanent. John Milton (Pacino), head of the firm, welcomes Lomax with open arms while showering him with a high-rise apartment, a huge office, and a large salary. The contrast between his mother’s warning and Lomax’s choices provides the setup for the overarching theme of the movie: some people will sell their soul to get ahead (i.e., they will play the devil’s advocate). In a further play on the religious undertones of the movie, John Milton’s name is a reference to the writer of Paradise Lost, an epic poem detailing the fall of man in the garden of Eden.
Milton takes on an almost parental role in Lomax’s life, constantly providing him with advice and assigning him to large, high-profile cases. In these moments, we see Milton’s incredible talents. He switches easily between multiple languages, seduces any and every woman he meets, and has a knack for knowing deeply personal facts about people he’s never met. John Milton is an enigmatic character for the majority of the film. How does he know the seemingly unknowable? Why doesn’t he have a bed within his apartment? In these moments, we start to see that something about Milton is more than human.
As the movie progresses, Lomax prioritizes work over his wife, who is slowly being consumed by loneliness and the strange, supernatural visions she sees when she’s at home alone in their apartment. At one point, she sees the faces of fellow attorneys’ wives morph into demons. Everyone around Mary Ann treats her terribly, telling her that everything is in her head. In another scene, however, she finds a baby in one of their bedrooms next to her removed ovaries — a scene that is gone by the time her husband arrives. It’s reminiscent of the movie Rosemary’s Baby, where a young woman unknowingly gives birth to the Antichrist, the son of the devil.
That moment as she kneels sobbing on the floor becomes a clear turning point in the film. Mary Ann explains that she recently went to a doctor and learned that she is not capable of having children. Additionally, she suspects Lomax has cheated on her with the many women Milton surrounds himself with — not knowing Lomax had been interested in a mysterious female attorney since his arrival at the form.
Despite Milton giving Lomax multiple opportunities to stop working on a high profile murder case so he can focus on his struggling wife, Lomax chooses to keep working. He chooses greed and career success over and over. Lomax decides to yet again defend someone he knows beyond a reasonable doubt to be guilty of murder. And he wins.
While Lomax wraps up the trial under Milton’s watchful eye, Mary Ann is found naked and wrapped in a blanket in a nearby church. She tells her husband that Milton sexually assaulted her but Lomax believes it to be impossible as they were at the trial the whole time. She stands, arms out like the body of Christ on the cross, covered with scars. Mary Ann’s Christ pose in church is a visual representation of the suffering she endured while her husband abandoned her. He takes Mary Ann to a psychiatric hospital for treatment where she eventually dies by suicide while in the presence of Lomax, his mother, and one of his colleagues whose face had also morphed into one of a demon.
While the viewer sees Mary Ann break down from the constant gaslighting she faces, one of Lomax’s colleagues is brutally murdered by individuals whose faces suddenly shift to those of demons while they attack him. During the funeral, we watch Milton stare at the artwork in the church, and with a smirk, put his hand in holy water, causing it to boil. This is our first real clue as to who, or what, Milton actually is.
Lomax’s life begins to shatter. He is consumed by the guilt of advocating for a guilty man and of discovering that the other guilty individual from the first scene had since killed a young girl. His guilt is only worsened by the loss of his wife. His mother admits that Milton is his father, revealing the stark contrast between her strict and puritanical religious beliefs and the evil faith of the father of her child.
Lomax finds himself buried in endless guilt and grief as he is forced to confront his father and mentor, Milton. In an amazing conclusion, it is revealed that John Milton is in fact the devil and that the young attractive attorney Lomax has lusted after since moving to New York is his sister. The devil explains that the 21st century is to be his, under the rule of his children, and their son, the AntiChrist. He sees the law as present in everything, so it’s perfect to manipulate the world.
Milton explains that Lomax brought himself to this point. The devil believes in free will and offered Lomax a series of choices that could have redeemed him— such as stopping to take care of his wife or to not put a lying witness on the stand. We become truly aware of all Lomax gave up in his search for power and success.
Lomax is offered everything: bliss, wealth, and anything else he can imagine. For the first time, however, Lomax says no, taking his own life and ensuring that the AntiChrist will not be born. In his rage, the devil, Milton, consumes them all in fire. We are immediately sent back to the first scene, before Kevin Lomax decides to introduce the evidence that will win him the case. He chooses to walk away during the trial, knowing he will lose his license. He gets a second chance to choose life over his vanity.
At this point, I have to acknowledge that my summary cannot do this ending, nor this film, justice. There are beautifully shot moments, especially in regards to religious iconography: Mary Ann sobbing in the church, her Christ-like pose (which truly highlights Theron’s talents), and Milton challenging God as he places his hand into the holy water are all striking scenes.
All of the religious symbolism in the film helps lead us to the revelation that John Milton is the devil. After Mary Ann’s scene in the church, the Christ pose is replicated again in the film’s conclusion by Lomax’s sister, this time as a joke against God. She mocks Jesus’ death immediately before they encourage Lomax to help create the Antichrist. This symbolism is also reflected in John Milton’s name. As mentioned above, the poem Paradise Lost details the fall of man from God’s grace, so it is only fitting that Satan himself should use that name as he walks amongst humans trying to manipulate humanity into further sin. The religious themes of the film emphasize the evil behind some of Lomax’s actions. When he harassed the young girl assaulted by her teacher on the stand, he went beyond his job as a defense attorney; he helped traumatize her. He, like the title suggests, played the devil’s advocate.
In fact, all three main actors give some of their best performances in this film. The movie is heartbreaking, emotional, and terrifying. The actors take you into the story with them, consuming you. At many points, the movie is almost hard to watch. The pain and guilt portrayed are almost tangible. Through the acting, the film’s mission is realized and you confront your own morals and ethics. How far are you willing to go, how much will you sacrifice for what you want?
Despite the actors’ performances, Devil’s Advocate performed rather poorly overall and has mixed reviews from critics. Though I love the film and the way it tells the story, it is definitely not without flaws. The plot is deeply complex and can barely fit in the two and a half hour runtime. At times it reaches beyond what it is capable of doing, making it almost overwhelming to watch. The constant switch between a critique of the legal system and the supernatural overtones can be jarring. Along with that, everything in this movie is connected and eventually leads us to the big ending. Though that is a plus for character and plot development, it makes it hard to keep track of every moving piece. Overall, I think the acting is what makes this film worth watching. The sometimes cheesy special effects get drowned out by the powerful performances and characters of the film.
As a student applying to law school now, I find myself reflecting a lot on my own morals and ethics after watching Devil’s Advocate, especially when it comes to my future career. Though I know I will not be asked by Al Pacino to rule over the earth with the AntiChrist through the guise of the legal profession, there is a larger issue to consider. What is the human impact when we choose money over people? What parts of ourselves do we lose when we stop valuing the humanity of others?
This, however, is just a movie review, not a philosophy paper. I can say that this movie is a great commentary on human greed and the criminal justice system, however flawed. Though different from your usual thriller or horror flick, Devil’s Advocate is a great choice for someone who wants to watch a dark psychological thriller (with a little supernatural flair) for the spooky season.
On a scale of 1-10 Keanu Reeves, I give this 7 ½ Keanu Reeves.
Until next time, stay spooky.