A film review by Craig J. Koban March 22, 2011
THE LINCOLN LAWYER
2011, R, 118 mins.
2011, R, 118 mins.
Mick Haller: Matthew McConaughey / Maggie: Marisa Tomei / Louis:
Ryan Phillippe / Ted: Josh Lucas / Val: John Leguizamo / Jesus:
Michael Pena / Cecil: Bob Gunton / Mary: Frances Fisher / Det.
Lankford: Bryan Cranston / Frank: William H. Macy
THE LINCOLN LAWYER
is a courtroom mystery/suspense/thriller unlike any I’ve seen, which is
quite noteworthy if you consider that the genre itself seems to be growing
staler by the year. Most
other similar films concern themselves with the accused defendant, the lawyer, and
what the attorney does to ensure that his client remains out of prison.
THE LINCOLN LAWYER has a very nifty twist, though: it chronicles a
desperate lawyer’s in-over-his-head attempts to get a quick verdict
of not guilty for his client on a charge of sexual assault so that he can
then charge him for a past crime of murder…all without breaking any
apparent legal laws that would jeopardize the attorney/client
relationship. Very few
courtroom potboilers and whodunnits have made this relationship as darkly complex and
psychologically gripping as this film.
The lawyer in
question is Mickey Haller (Matthew McConaughey), who in turn is a
literary character created by American crime author Michael Connolly.
Like most criminal defense lawyers, Mickey talks a very good talk
and has an cunningly convincing way with words.
These traits come in very handy, especially when you consider that
his clients involve all sorts of deplorable scumbags that he miraculous
manages to get off. Unlike
most lawyers, he works out of the backseat of his black Lincoln sedan
(hence, the title) that he did drive himself until a DUI stopped him.
He is now chauffeured around by his loyal right hand man (Laurence
Mason) who takes him from one morally bankrupt client to the next, some
of which include drug dealers, gangsters, and in one noteworthy instance,
a biker gang.
Mickey may be
unorthodox in style and manners, but he always seems to confidently get
the job done. However, even his razor sharp wits and crafty interpretation of
the law is thrown a curveball by the appearance of a new client, Louis
Roulett (a scarily convincing Ryan Philippe, in a very tricky role), a
extremely wealthy L.A. realtor that is accused of sexual assault and
attempted murder. With a new
– and incredibly well off – client under his belt, Mickey thinks that
he has hit the so-called mother load. He meets up with the fidgety Louis while in jail before he
posts bond, during which he desperately pleads his innocence.
Later, when both of them meet to further discuss the particulars of
what happened the night in question, Louis continues to steadfastly
profess his innocence. His
stance is that he was coerced into the woman’s home, knocked out, and
that her and an accomplice made it appear that she was the victim of Louis'
Using his wily investigative prowess – and the assistance of his own buddy and P.I.,
Frank Levin (a spot-on perfect William H. Macy), Mickey begins to put all
of the pieces of Louis' story in place alongside the physical
evidence. However, after
scrutinizing the evidence, it becomes alarmingly clear that the assault is
glaringly similar to one that landed his old client, Jesus Martinez
(Michael Pena) in jail for murder. Jesus
always proclaimed that another man killed the victim, which the evidence
of the time refuted, but now the evidence in Louis’ case seems to
implicate that he may have been the killer of this previous case, which
makes Mickey's defense of him for assault and attempted murder all the more
ethically thorny. Now that
the current assault/attempted murder trial has commenced, Mickey has
become pigeonholed within his duty to defend his client – largely because
of attorney/client privileges – even when he knows Louis is guilty beyond
belief. The story really
begins to develop considerable courtroom tension and intrigue, as Mickey
has to call up all of his shrewd legal know-how to get the current charges
dropped so that he can peruse new murder charges based on the old case.
most intrinsically compelling angle of the film is how the initially
ego-driven, hotshot attorney with no moral barometer is forced - via
events beyond his control – to use the courtroom and law to his
advantage to get him out of a very bad situation.
Louis has provided a troublesome roadblock for the usually cocky
and confident Mickey: not only is his client a definite courtroom
challenge (to say the least), but he also becomes a dangerous personal
threat to his life and those dear around him. What we are given is an atypical portal into the murky grey
area of the ways that lawyers have to defend clients they know are guilty
without violating the laws to uphold their defense of them.
We seem to know
from the get-go that something is afoul with Louis, but the film wastes
little time with relaying that he is indeed the culprit of the current
assault and of the past murder. The
psychological cat and mouse game that emerges between Louis and Mickey is
endlessly enthralling, which creates much of the forward momentum of the
film. What Mickey has to do
is not easy: he has to essentially use the court, the law, the jury, and
the system in general and brilliantly find a way to get Louis a not guilty
verdict in hopes of later trying him of murder charges.
Mickey would love nothing more than to lose the case, but he knows
that the larger charge of murder would be more worthy of his client’s
psychotic tendencies. The
court scenes become an incredibly convoluted chess game where Mickey has
to use witnesses and evidence in just the right manner to get the results
he needs, all while ensuring that Louis does not become wise to his
Many people may
recall McConaughey from his previous turns playing lawyers in films like A
TIME TO KILL and AMISTAD and some, no doubt, will criticize the actor for going back to the performance well, so to speak, for inspiration.
Yet, there is a reason that he is cast here and that’s because he
is so deceptively fine at playing up to the sharp tongued and
arrogant bravado of men like Mickey while, at the same time, evoking a
sense of emotional susceptibility and unease with his profession.
Considering that we have been forced to see the actor play
shirtless himbos in so many atrocious romcoms lately, it’s a
refreshing delight to see what a reliable, natural, and capable performer
McConaughey is when given the call of duty.
He has not been this good in years.
The rest of the
stellar cast is just as brawny: Ryan
Philippe has a very difficult trajectory to perform by initially showing
Louis as an anxious and defensive man of privilege that appears to be
innocent, but then must do a stark about-face and transform into a vile,
deceitful, and manipulative social monster that knows how to push buttons.
William H. Macy is able to make the most of his short-lived
investigator character by making him a quirky, offbeat delight.
I also liked Marisa Tomei playing Mickey’s former wife that is
kind of an on-again/off-again love interest for him while being a legal
aid to him as well. Even an
actor like Bryan Cranston (from TV’s BREAKING BAD) is able to make a large
and lasting impression in the throwaway role of the hardboiled police
detective. THE LINCOLN LAWYER
is just as involving on a performance level as it is on a
story level, and it's that one-two punch that keeps everything afloat,
even when you may wish to scrutinize the believability of the story.
The other element that works so inspiringly is how director Brad Furman and cinematographer Lukas Ettlin create an L.A. that’s kind of invitingly decadent, scummy and corrupt, which emerges as a fitting backdrop for the characters and their legal dilemmas. If there were one notable weakness in THE LINCOLN LAWYER it would be that it seems to struggle with finding a suitable ending: Just when you think the story has reached a satisfyingly ambiguous conclusion that answers questions while leaving others intriguingly unanswered, the film transpires for several more minutes to the point where it feels like we’ve had two or three endings instead of one. Yet, that is a minor squabble with this otherwise uniformly fine and unexpectedly intoxicating legal thriller. I have seen so many examples of the court room melodrama/murder mystery cruise by on overused formulas and predictable conventions, but THE LINCOLN LAWYER adeptly understands how to appease fans of the genre while nurturing calculated tweaks and twists in it to make it stand well apart from the pack.
And isn’t it nice to see McConaughey use his thespian skills and not his ripped and tanned pecs and six-pack do the talking?