Dispatches From Direct-To-DVD Purgatory is a periodic check-in on what’s going on in the world of movies that didn’t make it to theaters.
According to The Usual Suspects, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. But the genius of religion is that it gave the eviscerating darkness inside us a name and an image, and made that image simultaneously moderately threatening and fundamentally comic. The greatest trick humanity ever played was reducing the ultimate evil to a cartoon character and a Halloween costume for small children.
Human beings are capable of almost inconceivable horror: genocide, sex slavery, child abuse, and a million other unforgivable atrocities. Our personal potential to commit horrible sins is terrifying, so we make the world less scary by personifying our greed, lust, envy, rage, and bitterness as a rakish oddball with intriguing eccentricities, like a weakness for fiddling contests and the number 666. In the process, we de-fang evil and transform it from something vast and consuming into something knowable with a well-worn system of habits and conditions.
We’ve done it with Adolf Hitler, as well. Hitler has devolved into such a figure of fun throughout the years that at this point, he’s a go-to comic reference first and a genocidal madman second. (You might know him from his appearances on The History Channel and/or Family Guy.) Hitler’s name has been used and abused so egregiously throughout the years that it tends to generate titters in a non-Nazi-related environment. I call this the “Lemonade Hitler” effect after the moment in the nearly forgotten 2002 historical drama Max, where a one-armed Jewish art dealer (John Cusack), palling around with a young, belligerent Adolf Hitler (there are at least two things wrong with that series of words) says something to the effect of, “Come on, Hitler, I’ll buy you a glass of lemonade.”
The “Lemonade Hitler effect” also holds true with the subject of Suing The Devil, a wonderfully ridiculous Christian legal drama whose main character is the devil, played with scenery-devouring bravado by a ridiculous but appropriately over-the-top Malcolm McDowell. (He also produced the film, conceivably because he was determined to make a movie proving it was possible to out-overact Al Pacino’s hoarsely shouting Beelzebub in The Devil’s Advocate.)
In Suing The Devil, it’s hilarious any time anyone references the devil the way they might mention their cousin or a buddy:
- “Friends don’t ask friends to sue Satan.”
- “Well put, Satan.”
- “Excuse me, Satan! Get back into the witness stand!”
At no point does anyone ask Satan if he’d like a lemonade, but that’s what sequels are for. Bart Bronson, who looks more like a gangly, floppy-haired goof than a worthy adversary for the devil, stars in Suing The Devil as a man of faith who has lost his way after a drunk driver killed his mother.
In his grief and rage, Bronson decides to gun down his mother’s killer, but in a crucial moment in his quest for vengeance, his glove compartment pops open, and out falls a Bible to remind Bronson just how far he has strayed from a godly path.
Bronson has an epiphany. With furious conviction and utter reasonableness, he decides all of his problems, and also all of humanity’s problems from the beginning of time, are attributable to one malevolent force. He declares, “Every problem in the world today is somehow related to this evil being. It’s all lies and deception, and because of this snake, the world continues spiraling downward. And it dawned on me that I’d do something rash. If the world was going to hell, I may as well take some demons out. It was on this day I decided to expose Satan! Yes, you heard me right. Expose Satan! I could show the tactics of the devil better than anybody!”
I find the concept of exposing Satan adorable and hilarious, because it suggests that Bronson, a dopey, half-assed law student, is somehow going to ruin Satan’s good name and impeccable reputation by exposing to the world that he is every bit the evil, scheming, amoral jerk everybody in the entire universe already believes him to be. Yes, you heard me right. I exposed Satan as a real grade-A jerk! Flame away, Satanists!
In a plot development that feels like a small child dreamed it up, Bronson decides to sue the devil for $8 trillion for his devilish ways. But first, he has to serve the devil with papers, which leads him on a trek to various places Bronson suspects Satan might hang out, including a strip club where fully clothed middle-aged women do yoga poses on raised stages, which is apparently the PG, Christian conception of what strip clubs entail. Bronson also visits Satanists who helpfully wear T-shirts with messages like “Satan Rules,” though they petulantly rip up the legal documents Bronson wants them to deliver to their dark lord.
The case is going to be laughed out of court, until Satan makes an unexpected appearance in the form of Malcolm McDowell, a strutting, swaggering alpha-demon who decides to defend himself in court for a lark, and because he enjoys messing with and manipulating us silly mortals.
There is one reason and one reason only to see Suing The Devil, apart from the title and a premise so awesomely ridiculous that it really should be called Suing The Devil!?!, and that is McDowell’s appropriately epic performance. McDowell plays the devil as a movie star forever flashing a big cheesy grin, wriggling his eyebrows, and swaggering down a metaphorical red carpet, while surrounded by hordes of fans, detractors, and the ever-present press.
In a bid to hang onto that $8 trillion, McDowell hires the best/most evil lawyers in the world, making sure they all believe in God, but despise Him so much that they all literally make a deal with the devil, in spite of the long history of those deals going south.
That’s one of the many appealing absurdities of Suing The Devil: In its loopy world, humanity is split on this whole mankind-vs.-the-devil business. Sure, the devil has his detractors, but he also has a lot of advocates—including a young man who says he loves Satan and Kiss, only to have McDowell push him away and sneer that he was always more of a Tom Jones man himself.
Suing The Devil has a sense of humor about itself and its own absurdity, but that doesn’t keep it from going in hilariously melodramatic directions: Bronson’s case against McDowell takes a massive hit when it comes out that the former, in spite of his protestations of godliness, has used Internet pornography, profanity, and even a racial epithet.
Everyone loses faith in Bronson once it comes out that he is human and fallible. Why would anyone listen to anyone who wasn’t perfect? Bronson eventually gets his confidence back and once again gets the upper hand in court when he shoves Jesus’ holy word in McDowell’s face. McDowell responds by revealing that Bronson’s wife has brain cancer, a development handled just as sensitively and extensively as cancer was in The Room.
In the end, Bronson ends up winning a settlement that will undoubtedly bankrupt the devil (who famously has a net worth of $8 trillion, plus 75 bucks) because how the fuck else is a Christian movie about suing the devil going to turn out? With the devil winning? But before the verdict is read, McDowell gets to deliver an epic monologue on his contempt for humanity and their foibles, a master-class of scenery-chewing excess that brings McDowell’s operatic performance to an appropriately thundering crescendo.
Alas, it was all an elaborate fake-out. Bronson wakes up with his head in a law book to discover that his wife is fine after all, and that he never sued McDowell. Bronson is so overcome with Christ’s love that he races out to forgive the drunk driver who mowed down his mother.
Thanks almost entirely to McDowell, Suing The Devil is one of the most entertaining evangelical Christian films I’ve written about for this column. Unlike most godly epics, it has a sense of humor about itself, but the laughs it generates are largely of the unintentional variety. It’s sweet, dopey, and strangely touching in its fuzzy but strong-headed conviction that with a whole lot of faith and Jesus’ love inside him, a no-hoper of a lawyer could triumph over the ultimate evil. In keeping with the reassuring nature of our conception of Satan, Suing The Devil depicts an ultimate evil that isn’t merely knowable, but so vulnerable that he’s defeated in a court of law not by a Daniel Webster-style genius, but rather by a schmuck whose only real gift is his unshakeable, immutable faith.
Just how bad is it? McDowell is a whole lot of fun in a movie that delivers the camp goods along with a whole lot of Jesus.