The Lincoln Lawyer

By Scott MartinThe Lincoln Lawyer movie

The Lincoln Lawyer, USA, 2011

Directed by Brad Furman

Consider it a John Grisham novel on steroids. Matthew McConaughey is adept at playing lawyers with an evident moral compass that they just choose to ignore. I remember the first time I saw A Time to Kill (1996) on television, and I was mostly just interested in seeing Sandra Bullock in something that wasn’t a frothy romantic comedy, but I left the film impressed mostly by McConaughey and his bittersweet performance. Fifteen years later, I’m reminded of why I like him as an actor in the first place. It’s not easy to get behind him when he comes out with films like Failure to Launch (2006), Surfer, Dude, or Fool’s Gold (both 2008), but in films like Contact (1997), Tropic Thunder (2008), or The Lincoln Lawyer, his considerable skill is put to better use. He is an actor, first and foremost, especially when he keeps his shirt on.

Mick Haller (McConaughey) is a defense attorney, and a damn good one. We’re not keyed in on his record of wins or losses, except for a few important ones, but I can imagine it’s somewhere comparable to 50-3. Even the license plate on his Lincoln sedan reads “NTGUILTY,” which is either a reminder to Haller himself that he earns an honest living, or just a mantra. He’s a drinker, and then some. You can imagine his southern charm being effective not only in the courtroom, but on the women he encounters, too. He’s genuine, but even that has its limits. Haller surrounds himself with clients and co-workers; outside of his ex-wife, Maggie (Marisa Tomei), and his private investigator, Frank (William H. Macy), I wonder if he has a true friend. The man’s clients consist of murderers, rapists, prostitutes, drug dealers - the type of roster any star defense attorney might have.

The Lincoln Lawyer screenshotNot on his list of friends, but on the list of people he knows well, is a bail bondsman named Val Valenzuela (an underused John Leguizamo) who connects him to the case of a lifetime. A young realtor named Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillipe) has been accused of assault and battery against a young prostitute named Reggie (Margarita Levieva). Of course, the verdict Haller must aim for is “not guilty”; whether Roulet is guilty or not isn’t ever the point, until his case begins to mirror one from several years ago in which the wrong man might have been convicted. What’s interesting about The Lincoln Lawyer is that the case we’ve been watching isn’t necessarily the point, or plot, of the film; instead, it’s the toll the case takes on the people involved.

Good acting makes up for questionable pacing. McConaughey seems perfectly at home in the skin of a skeez-ball, and allows himself to be a vulnerable anti-hero. He’s likable in all the wrong ways; exactly what a character like this calls for, and what he excels at. The supporting cast, with what they’re given to do, is uniformly credible, most notably Macy and Michael Pena as Jesus Martinez, one of Haller’s old clients. Phillipe gets enough screen time to do his job, but lacks enough presence to come off as anything entirely menacing when he needs to be; he’s a good actor, but he couldn’t carry his weight. Smaller roles are played by bigger actors, and they should consider hiring Haller for damages; there’s no reason for Bryan Cranston or Frances Fischer to merely make cameos in anything, let alone for Tomei to be so underdeveloped.

I need to point out, though, that one of the best performances comes from a young woman in only two scenes. She’s a prostitute arrested for that and possession of cocaine, played by Katherine Moennig, who plays the role of Gloria like she got acting lessons from Vera Farmiga; definitely an actress to look out for. You can see her in Simon Brand’s upcoming thriller Default, or on older episodes of Showtime’s The L Word. Her presence in this film, though, points out something of which director Brad Furman should have been aware: you don’t need recognizable actors to make an impact; they wind up just being distracting. This is one of the few things that took me out of the movie; decisions like this wind up compromising the pacing of the film and connection to the story, two things of which most legal dramas are in dire need. I will say, however, that even if some of the cast was underused or even misplaced, not one hit a false note.

I’m wondering if, since this film was a success (rightfully so), the studio will continue the series and make a franchise out of author Michael Connelly’s books. Considering the solidity of this first effort, I’m hoping they do. McConaughey could use another knock-out performance under his belt, and it would certainly give more credibility to Furman for all of his hard work. After all, he made a crime drama set in L.A. that didn’t make L.A. seem like a terrible place. Happy movies about L.A. have a hard enough time doing that without themes of rape and assault hanging over them. Regardless of that small fact, The Lincoln Lawyer winds up being not just a good movie, but a great set-up for a series to which I’m eagerly awaiting the next piece. And that car? Gorgeous.

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