A film review by Craig J. Koban March 22, 2011



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

Directed by Brad Furman / Written by John Romano, based on the novel by Michael Connelly


I am going to find it very difficult to discuss THE LINCOLN LAWYER without revealing key aspects of the plot and its twists, so please consider this review one replete with spoilers 

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' assault. 

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. 

Ultimately, the 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 methods.. 

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?

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