The Devil’s Business
Why 80s and 90s movies were the real Devil’s Advocate
How do you imagine The Devil? You know, the physical manifestation of evil and mankind’s collective sins? Whether you believe in Christian theology or not you will have some conception of what the devil looks like. Most people assume it is a ‘He’ for instance, which stands to reason given that men are responsible for most wars, murders, rapes, etc. But beyond simply his gender, how do you imagine him? Contemporary interpretations tend to fall into two camps: the red horned demon or the charismatic angel, but ol’ Lucifer wasn’t always seen this way. In Dante’s Inferno for instance the ultimate evil at the centre of hell is an ice-producing machine with three faces, chewing on the souls of Judas, Brutus and Longinus. For whatever reason though we have settled on either the Tim Curry from Legend look or Robert de Niro from Angel Heart look. Both versions have long, storied and complicated histories but the corrupted, ugly version seems to have been developed in the middle ages as a concoction of different demons from various places and eras such as Babylonian and Canaanite, whereas the more human, sly and — dare I say — ‘sexy’ version was solidified by John Milton in Paradise Lost. These iterations are an interesting juxtaposition as, depending which we prefer, they seem to illustrate our thoughts and feelings about what constitutes the worst in mankind. One depiction says that what makes mankind evil is a freakish, ugly parody of humanity, that cruelty, selfishness and malign intent are aberrant behaviours that visibly corrupt, while the other depicts pure evil as not only common but admired. And it is this latter rendering that pops up a lot in movies.
It seems there was a trend at the end of the last century in how the devil was depicted in films. Whether it was Angel Heart, The Devil’s Advocate, End of Days or Needful Things the devil himself was portrayed as a suave, suited, respectable and often very powerful man in society. Lawyers, wall street dealers, private business men, all of the supposed ‘Elite’ were depicted as the personification of evil, which — to me — seems kind of obvious. These are the best examples of pure evil (whatever it is ‘Evil’ even means) I can think of in the world today. Men who profit from death, destitution and disaster are lower than scum to me and that sums up most of the types of characters this version of the devil portrays. The ‘gimme’ for this however is that secretly they are all the hideous demon version hiding in the flesh of a human, like the translucent, winged beast that possesses Gabriel Byrne at the start of End of Days. It is in this manner that evil can still remain aberrant and uncommon, the evil doer remains the proverbial ‘bad egg’ as it were, singled out by the devil for dastardly deeds. Today though, more and more, we see that the evil enacted upon people has less to do with bad eggs and more to do with a rotten hatchery. Whether it’s persistent corruption at the highest levels of government, disinterest in solving the climate crisis or simply the Metropolitan Police telling women to “Call the police” if you are being arrested by the police, the individualist idea that the devil creeps into the heart of those most susceptible and entices them into doing evil is not the case.
It’s this kind of depiction I find not only stupid but largely inconsistent. The charismatic devil with his big dick energy and tailored clothes is often seen to spend a great deal of time tempting our protagonist, whether it’s Jesus in the desert or Keanu Reeves in the penthouse, offering them all sorts of rewards if they’d just do this little bit of sinning. This is then met with a resounding “No! I do not want my dream job, millions of dollars, a gorgeous partner, etc, in return for my immortal soul I shall stay ‘poor but pure’”. Convenient that the average schmo is always the one tempted isn’t it? While the devil is already rich. It’s also contradictory because why can whoever the hell Gabriel Byrne’s character was before being possessed simply be taken over by Beelzebub with no consent but everyone else has to be tricked into agreeing to work for the devil first? The trouble with all of this is it gives the devil too much his due. The heavenly war waged in our name seems an awful lot like a hostile company take over in this light, where the higher ups make the decisions and the rest of us keep living in the proverbial dark. The devil is a business man because they are evil but also you’ll never get to be anywhere near as rich or powerful as him so the temptation to get “whatever your heart desires” is flawed at its outset. Why should we care about a lover’s tiff in heaven and hell when we get screwed either way? No, the devil isn’t a business man but nor is he the beast.
The more err… graphic depiction devil is also flawed in that if he is this manifestation of mankind’s collective sin, his monstrousness implies the bad that people do is abnormal whereas, sadly, we know that isn’t true. As Hannah Arendt described, evil is banal. Often carried out by bureaucratic bean counters, disinterested in the horrors they visit upon people, viewing human lives like the average corporate CEO — as plots on a graph. And how many more overly long Netflix docu-series do we need telling us how this or that serial killer was “just like any other guy” to realise evil is invisible. This kind of everyday monstrousness shows us that the things we call morally and ethically ‘bad’ are just as common as that which we would call good, or even neutral. These things are still wrong and have a deleterious effect on all of us but it is, unfortunately, not that easy to spot in others. If everyone who did evil grew horns the world would probably be a better — or at least more interesting — place. So if neither depiction really works then of what use is The Devil in popular culture?
Good point: None.
Like a lot of things in theology and religion, in the abstract, the lessons are really useful but in practical terms they are close to useless, so depicting elements of it, like the devil, literally has no real use. Having an embodiment of evil is useful in the abstract because it can act as a totem to point at all the things we should not do, but making it into a living, breathing Wall Street suit might seem accurate (they are evil after all) instead it only serves more evil functions. There is a better way of depicting this kind of evil literally though and it was achieved by, of all movies, Ghostbuster II.
The river of slime that runs throughout New York City is said in the movie to have been created by all the negative energy created in the city. It is this negative energy that causes it to swell, dredging up ghosts from the city’s past and nearly destroying the entire island and its inhabitants. The idea that ill will, meanness, cruelty, violence and hatred can coalesce into a surging river is a metaphor that has stuck with me ever since I saw the movie as a kid. The imagery of taking “a swim in it and ending up ready to kill each other” seems like the perfect encapsulation of contemporary attitudes. The polarisation of beliefs today is driven by many things but the rhetoric in person and online can sweep us along in it, having us all ready to “kill each other” before we’ve even had breakfast. This, to me, seems like a far more apt personification of evil than any moustache twirling business man or horned beast. It is a shame then that this more imaginative depiction of what is essentially a manmade construct did not catch on, the 90s, instead, favouring Al Pacino and the boardroom. This glamourisation of the Wolf of Wall Street-style character as the devil, however, reaffirms rather than repels us from the evil it supposedly depicts. These gross men still exist, are still ruining lives and never see justice but these depictions seem to say that this is ‘The Nature of Evil’, you’ll never defeat him so you’re better off not becoming him, which implicitly says ‘stay where you’re put’ and ‘don’t try to change things’. This only serves to prove that the personage of the devil is its own advocate. Each time we personify the devil, it does the devil’s work.