The Lincoln Lawyer
Director : Brad Furman
Screenplay : John Romano (based on the novel by Michael Connelly)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Matthew McConaughey (Mick Haller), Marisa Tomei (Maggie McPherson), Ryan Phillippe (Louis Roulet), William H. Macy (Frank Levin), Josh Lucas (Ted Minton), John Leguizamo (Val Valenzuela), Michael Peña (Jesus Martinez), Bob Gunton (Cecil Dobbs), Frances Fisher (Mary Windsor), Bryan Cranston (Detective Lankford), Trace Adkins (Eddie Vogel), Laurence Mason (Earl), Margarita Levieva (Reggie Campo), Pell James (Lorna), Shea Whigham (Corliss), Katherine Moennig (Gloria)
If The Lincoln Lawyer feels a bit like a particularly good episode of any one of the numerous law-and-order-related TV shows that seem to be in constant syndication and circulation, it may be because screenwriter John Romano, who adapted Michael Connelly’s best-selling 2005 novel, has spent most of his career writing and producing episodic television, particularly police series, ranging from the disastrous Cop Rock, to the critically acclaimed The Beast. This is not in any way meant to slight The Lincoln Lawyer, which is nothing if not entirely engrossing, albeit with a few too many endings. Rather, it is meant to underscore how smoothly Romano and sophomore director Brad Furman (The Take) have brought together the numerous narrative and thematic threads that make such stories, even when being told for the umpteen-millionth time, really work.
In full sleaze-charmer wise-ass mode, Matthew McConaughey stars as Mick Haller, a successful Los Angeles defense attorney who takes big money to defend all manner of criminals and cons, including a biker gang’s most productive “farmer” and a prostitute with a cocaine habit. Mick comes from a long line of fictional defense attorneys who have checked their morality at the door, not so much because they cherish their hated, but absolutely necessary place in the justice system, but because they know that keeping people out of jail pays much better than putting them behind bars. Mick works out of the back of his black Lincoln Continental, which is driven by Eddie Vogel (Trace Adkins), who is most likely one of Mick’s former clients and is streetwise enough to recognize that the manner in which his boss operates is not that different from the ways of the criminals he defends. Nevertheless, because he is smart and funny and confident (in ways that perhaps only McConaughey could fully pull off), we can’t help but like Mick. It also doesn’t hurt that he has an egalitarian streak, reflected primarily in his cordial relationship with his ex-wife (Marisa Tomei) and his dedication to their young daughter, which gives us the sense that his surface is a lot of show and that inside he’s really a decent human being just waiting to be hosed off.
Mick’s newest client, referred to him by a bail bondsman in need of a favor (John Leguizamo), is a potential cash cow: Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a young, handsome playboy who drives a Maserati and makes his living selling high-end property via the lucrative real estate company owned by his domineering mother (Frances Fisher). Louis is accused of breaking into a woman’s apartment, beating and raping her, and then attempting to kill her, charges that he vehemently denies and claims are part of an elaborate set-up. Mick is a cynic by trade who was taught by his father (a defense lawyer who once represented the gangster Mickey Cohen) that an innocent client is the scariest of all because Mick will be scarred for life if he goes to prison. Nevertheless, Mick wants to believe Louis’s story--that is, until his private investigator (William H. Macy, delightfully scruffy) starts digging up some potentially contradictory information and Mick discovers parallels between Louis’s case and an earlier case in which another young man (Michael Peña) went to jail for life for a similar crime despite his claims of innocence.
Thus, The Lincoln Lawyer develops into a redemption story, with Mick being thrust into a crucible of identity conflict in which he must confront his mistakes from the past and how they are coming back to haunt him. His unique position as a defense attorney who may know that his client is guilty, yet must do everything in his legal power to argue otherwise in a court of law, has always been a place of comfort for him, not only because he is so smooth in navigating the in’s and out’s of the system, but because he has convinced himself of his own moral superiority. When that is challenged, everything comes crumbling down around him unless he can find a way to set things right, a difficult position when you’re privy to information that you can’t legally divulge.
The fact that The Lincoln Lawyer is essentially an ensemble piece works in its favor, especially since the casting feels so right, from McConaughey’s slick huckster right down to Josh Lucas as the rigid assistant district attorney prosecuting the case. Furman lays on the camera trickery a bit too much at times (do we really need those random quick zooms?), although the use of classic blues and R&B on the soundtrack is quite effective in connecting Mick with a long history of cons and street hustlers. It is not surprising, then, that Mick finally chooses to operate outside of the law, even as the majority of the film’s tension comes from watching him work the nuances of the system to achieve his ends without going outside of it. The final moments feature two acts of violence, one in self-defense and one that is entirely premeditated and genuinely vicious, and the fact that we accept both (and probably applaud them) is a fascinating example of how movies about the legal system don’t do anything so well as encourage us to love its breakdowns as much as its successes. Mick gets to win inside and outside the courtroom, and as we all know, movie audiences love a winner.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Lionsgate