For some background, and to see part one of this review, click here.
In anticipation of Tim Chey’s upcoming biblically correct film, David and Goliath, I went in search of a film also made by the filmmaker, hoping to get a sense of his style and personality. That search led me to Suing the Devil, starring Malcolm McDowell as old Scratch himself.
“In the film, Luke O’Brien (Bart Bronsen), a washed-up janitor turned night law student, decides to sue Satan (Malcolm McDowell) for $8 trillion dollars. On the last day before Luke ﬁles a default judgment, Satan appears to defend himself. On Satan’s legal team are 10 of the country’s best trial lawyers (Dennis Cole, Jeff Gannon, Annie Lee). The entire world watches Legal TV (Corbin Bernsen, Tom Sizemore, Rebecca St. James) to see who will win the Trial of the Century.”
As I usually do with my film reviews, I will start with what I liked about Suing the Devil, then where I think the filmmakers could have improved, and then I’ll rate the movie according to the Thimblerig Scale, which you can read about here.
But before I do that, here’s the trailer.
What I liked:
1) The cinematography
I’m happy that this is becoming a fairly constant positive when it comes to my reviews of Christian made films. Suing the Devil looked quite good, with some interesting camera work, and it was obvious that the filmmakers intended for the film to have a feature film quality feel to it. For the most part, they succeeded.
2) The humor
The film often had a lightness that the subject matter demanded, keeping it from falling into a completely dark place. Most of the humor was found in the responses of the Legal TV broadcast, with Corbin Bernsen, Rebecca St. James, and Tom Sizemore reacting to the events of the courtroom, but Satan was given some pretty good lines, too – such as his encounter with the zealous Kiss fan in the trailer.
3) The earnestness
I’m slowly coming around to appreciate the earnestness of Christian-made films. Unfortunately, earnestness alone doesn’t help make a film a good film, but as a Christian, I can respect a fellow Christian filmmaker wanting to use his or her opportunity on screen to share the faith. Suing the Devil, as with most Christian-made films, would have benefited from a healthy dose of subtlety and artistry to make the film more accessible for the non-Christian audience, but the sincerity of the filmmakers wanting to share The Message was evident in this film from start to finish.
4) Malcolm McDowell
This movie rose and fell on Malcolm McDowell, and he earned whatever sum of money he was paid. He camped it up where it needed to be camped, and he was suitably intimidating when he needed to intimidate. I especially thought the monologue about the creation of noise to be especially poignant.
“You know what I created, do you? I created noise! And like the dumb idiots you are, you worshipped it! Humans love the noise I create. Car alarms, motorcycles, leaf blowers, nightclubs, gangsta rap, techno music, everything that creates noise, I invented. Noise drowns out any thoughts of God. (noise erupts in the courtroom) What’s the matter? Don’t you love the music of hell?”
I shudder to think how these lines would have been, coming from a lesser actor.
Which brings me to what I didn’t like about Suing the Devil.
1) The rest of the actors
I’m sorry to say, but it seems like Mr. Chey spent the bulk of his budget on getting Mr. McDowell, Mr. Bernstein, Ms. St. James, and Mr. Sizemore. While a few of Satan’s lawyers were pretty good, most of the other actors performed on the typical Christian film level, meaning disappointingly.
This actually has me concerned for what we’re going to see from David and Goliath, a film that reportedly has a huge budget of $50 million dollars, but with no known actors in any of the roles. In fact, looking through the actors’ IMDB pages, most have few acting credits. Unfortunately, Suing the Devil seems to demonstrate that directing green actors may not be Mr. Chey’s strong suit.
2) The script
Warning: this paragraph contains a big spoiler.
As disappointed as I was by the acting, my bigger problem with the film was the uneven script, which confused me as to what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish. Were they trying to make a goofball comedy? A courtroom drama? A supernatural horror? An inspirational evangelistic film? The different styles were thrown together with such lack of subtlety that it turned out being more jarring than effective cinema.
Much of the script seemed cobbled together from old courtroom drama movies, as if they went through the tropes for courtroom dramas and ticked off the boxes.
Amoral attorney? Check.
Army of Lawyers? Check.
Chewbacca defense? Check.
Crusading Lawyer? Check.
Evil Lawyer Joke? Check.
Frivolous Lawsuit? Check.
Hello, Attorney? Check.
Hollywood Law? Check.
Insanity Defense? Check.
The Judge? Check.
Occult Law Firm? Check.
Omnidisciplinary Lawyer? Check.
Penultimate Outburst? Check.
Stock Legal Phrases? Check.
Tort reform? Check.
And then there were the manufactured moments of triumph that just didn’t make sense (everyone erupting into applause when Luke tells Satan he’s going to hell), the on-the-nose sermonizing in the form of dialogue (Satan: “Do you remember the Garden of Gethsemane? All the disciples were asleep, and he had no one to turn to. And he still went through with it! Unbelievable!” Luke: “Yeah, what a great guy. That’s why I owe him, big.”), the cliche’ lines and expressions (Satan actually cries out, “You can’t handle the truth!” on the stand after a particularly strong bit of questioning. Since they were filming in Australia, I was surprised that they also didn’t have Satan say, “That’s not a knife. That is a knife.”)
And then there was the biggest disappointment of all.
After winning the court case, defeating Satan by trusting God, Luke wakes up to find that it was all a dream. He’d fallen asleep in the first minute of the film, and then wakes up at the very end, like George Bailey at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life, transformed because of the events of his dream.
This worked with It’s A Wonderful Life for at least a couple of reasons. One, Frank Capra spent time setting up why George Bailey needed to be transformed. When he comes back in the end, we’re relieved, because we were rooting for him. In Devil, we don’t know anything about Luke, so why should we care if he’s changed? Two, It’s A Wonderful Life had the nerve to suggest that supernatural powers were at work to teach George Bailey his value. For some reason, with Suing the Devil, a movie that spent quite a bit of time preaching about the supernatural and God, it all turned out to be a random nightmare. The film could have benefited from actual supernatural involvement.
Ironically, the filmmakers promoted the film saying, “At a time when only 60% of Christians believe that the devil exists, the film is exposing the devil’s greatest tactic: that he doesn’t exist.” But that idea is completely destroyed when the entire film turns out to have been a dream. After all, the film’s Satan was all a product of the main character’s subconscious, speaking to him from a dream. So, nothing exposed, nothing gained. Which was a pity.
Would I recommend Suing the Devil? Sure, why not? Especially if you are interested to see the really paradoxical image of Malcolm McDowell hamming it up in a Christian-made film. You might not love the movie, but you may enjoy Mr. McDowell.
And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for: The Golden Groundhog Movie Scale, inspired by a blog post I wrote a year ago, What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking. In that blog post, I said that Christian filmmakers needed to do five things so that our filmmaking could have an impact outside the Christian bubble.
Those five things included:
1. Our films need to take more risks.
On paper, Suing the Devil seems like a risky movie. The slightly psychotic poster, the idea of a person having the audacity to sue Satan, hiring Malcolm McDowell in the role of Beelzebub, in fact the idea of the movie was enough to get the film listed in Wired Magazine’s 2011 list of 28 Summer Movies That Could Rock Your Summer.
But even with all of that, at it’s heart, the movie is just another safe evangelical film, for the Christian audience.
However, for effort, Thimblerig awards 1/2 a Golden Groundhog.
2. Our films need to challenge our audience.
Considering that the audience for this film was evangelical Christians, I can’t imagine that they were challenged very much. An argument could be made that the film challenged lukewarm Christians to consider the reality of Satan being at work in our lives, but the fact that it all turned out to be a dream negated that lesson, in large part. Even the little whisper from Satan at the end wasn’t enough to recover the challenge.
No Golden Groundhogs.
3. The pulpit is the pulpit, and art is art, and we need to let them be the two different things that they are – in other words, consider delivering the message subtly rather than having preachy, didactic films.
This film was made for the pulpit. It’s the kind of movie that would play very well in churches and with youth groups. The film had two clergymen espouse doctrine from the witness stands, the protagonist and Satan himself quoted Bible verses to prove their arguments, and Hillsong worship songs played in the background.
You can’t get much more “pulpity” than that.
No Golden Groundhogs.
4. Our films shouldn’t give all the answers.
Suing the Devil did not leave any question unanswered, because all the questions were negated when it all turned out to be a dream. If it hadn’t been a dream, there could have been some questions to be answered – what happened with Luke’s strangely southern-accented cancer-stricken wife? How did the devil handle his defeat?
But thanks to that whole dream conceit, no Golden Groundhogs.
5. We are beholden to tell good stories.
Again, this film had the potential to be a good story, but pulled apart at the seams with each passing minute. However, for having the nerve to try and tell such an audacious story, I would award it half a golden groundhog.
1/2 a Golden Groundhog.
Final tally: 1 out of 5 Golden Groundhogs.
In conclusion, while I admire Tim Chey’s ability to raise large sums of money for his productions, while he seems to be the kind of person I would enjoy spending time with in real life, and while I appreciate that he has managed to produce, write, and/or direct multiple films, Suing the Devil did not make me a fan of his directing, for the reasons listed above.
Where does this leave me, as far as David and Goliath is concerned? For what it’s worth, the good news for the filmmakers is that I’ve got nowhere to go but up, with regards to my expectations. As is usually the case when it comes to the Christian-made films, I have the highest hopes that the film will surprise me, but realistic expectations that it will not.
Finally, I hope the fact that I wrote this review doesn’t make me come across as a jealous or carnal Christian (see part 1 of this review to see why I say this). If it does, however, then I’ll just rest in the satisfaction that my salvation doesn’t rest in whether or not I like Tim Chey’s films, but in the redemptive and finished work of my Savior on the cross.
This post is a part of my 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge, where I’m doing my best to consume nothing but Christian media. This has led me to make some good Christian media discoveries, as well as some real clunkers.
Day 17 down.
Some trivia about Suing the Devil:
Shortly before the film was released on DVD, there was a mad rush on pirated downloads of the film, with over 100,000 illegal downloads of Suing the Devil happening over the course of two days. When the producers of the film contacted Piratebay and asked them to remove the film from their servers, Piratebay refused, and then their IMDB page was hit by a rush of negative reviews, apparently in retaliation. Of course, this also gave the filmmakers some bragging rights, that their movie had been illegally downloaded that many times, to the point that they released a press releases telling the story. No such thing as bad press, right?
Second bit of trivia about Suing the Devil:
In an example of life imitating art, Tim Chey sued Netflix for $10 million dollars for not making Suing the Devil available on www.netflix.com. Mr. Chey claimed that Netflix had committed “the most egregious act ever committed by a film distributor.” Unfortunately, the story didn’t end happily for Mr. Chey, as the suit was dismissed by the U.S. district court judge overseeing the case.