The Devil's Own
Directed by Alan J. Pakula. Starring Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Treat Williams, Margaret Colin, Ruben Blades. (1997, R, 111 min.)
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., March 28, 1997
Unlike other recent movies dealing with the Irish Republican Army, The Devil's Own touches only lightly upon the political issues behind the English-Irish conflict. Instead, it explores the dark pathology of violence and how personal and cultural variables affect our perception of it. Pitt plays babyfaced IRA terrorist Frankie “The Angel” Maguire, who has sneaked into the U.S. to stock up on black market missiles. Aided by a stateside sympathizer, he finds lodging in the home of Irish-American cop Tom O'Meara (Ford, in another of his trademark stolid mensch performances), who is ignorant of his guest's true identity. As the arms deal drags on, plenty of time is freed up for the two men to bond, and for Frankie to experience guilt and recrimination in the face of Tom's decency and near-christlike abhorrence of violence. As usual with Pakula's films (Sophie's Choice, Klute, All the President's Men), The Devil's Own has a sober, muted ambience that wordlessly signifies Gravity and Seriousness. Consistent with this tone, there's little of the steroid-pumped emotional intensity that makes the terrorist-movie subgenre so annoying. (No raging psycho persona for Pitt; no THX-maxing explosions; no sexual tension between Frankie and Tom's wife.) Instead, Pakula opts for a high-minded faith in film's potential as a lens through which hazy moral and ethical issues can be brought into relief. Unfortunately, the scenes meant to deliver this clarity come across weakly and affectlessly. The script, partly written by an uncredited Terry George (Some Mother's Son, In the Name of the Father) strains mightily for insight but never quite breaks through. There's really just one deeply telling line in the entire film and the filmmakers seem so aware of this fact that they use it twice. On the plus side, there's no hint here of the Pitt-Ford headbutting alleged for months by industry gossip-mongers. Neither male lead rolls his eyes or does the jerking-off motion as the other delivers his lines; to the contrary, their chemistry is one of this film's strong points. Nor is the script, reportedly so awful that Pitt wanted to bail on his contract, a total disgrace. Its chief failure is that it falls short of its own lofty intentions. But Pitt, who delivers one of his most mature, fully realized performances here, is right to be frustrated over how The Devil's Own turned out. There are few harder letdowns than a good film that lets greatness slip from its grasp.