The Lincoln Lawyer, based on the novel by Michael Connelly, weaves a gripping web of mystery and suspense, although what really impressed me was the title character, quite possibly the most interesting and unorthodox criminal defense attorney in cinema history. His name is Mickey Haller (Matthew McConaughey), and he does business from the backseat of his Lincoln sedan. This was initially done out of necessity – some months prior he had his license suspended because of a DUI – but is now done for the sheer luxury of it. He has a chauffeur named Earl (Laurence Mason), who was once his client and is now trying to work off his legal fees. He drives Haller up and down the streets of Los Angeles, mostly because he’s more likely to find clients there than in a law office; most of them are lowlifes who know that no other lawyer can do what he does. And they pay him handsomely for his services. He knows what he’s doing.
A bondsman named Val (John Leguizamo) comes to him with an offer for a high-profile case, which he accepts but isn’t used to. Here enters Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a wealthy Beverly Hills playboy; he has been accused of the rape and attempted murder of a prostitute (Margarita Levieva), although he adamantly asserts his innocence. As the son of powerful realtor and businesswoman (Francis Fisher), it appears to make sense that someone would stage a crime, frame him for it, and ultimately sue him for everything he’s worth. It makes even more sense considering the young lady’s profession, which she desperately wanted out of. If she were to take him to court and win, the damages would afford her the opportunity to start a new life.
Without lingering over revealing details, let’s just say that Haller notices certain similarities between this case and that of a former client, Jesus (Michael Peña), who’s serving a life sentence for murder in San Quentin with the possibility of parole in fifteen years. He has always professed his innocence – it wasn’t him, but some other guy. Still it was the best Haller could do given the circumstances. Without his help, Jesus would have gotten the death penalty. In trying to make things right, he hits a roadblock in the form of client-attorney confidentiality. It’s going to take a lot of digging, legal maneuvers, and sheer cunning in order to get to the truth. In charge of the first is his private investigator, Frank (William H. Macy), who, like Haller, is an asset to the film strictly on the basis of his unique personality.
I will describe no more of the case, but rest assured that it will ultimately wind up in a courtroom. It’s here we meet Ted Milton, the prosecution (Josh Lucas), and a man named Corliss (Shea Whigham), whose role in the case I leave to you to discover. Although the film offers nothing groundbreaking in the way of legal twists and turns, the courtroom scenes are competently staged and performed, which is to say they’re no less entertaining despite being somewhat routine. I even went along with the obligatory post-trial scenes, which is always when new details are brought to light and characters find themselves in whole different kinds of trouble. My only real criticism would be the second of three appearances by a biker gang; their actions were not only implausible, they also reflected badly on Haller, and I came dangerously close to not liking him anymore.
I came close, but I ultimately gave it up, for I couldn’t simply dismiss all the earlier scenes that made him such a fascinating character. McConaughey was the perfect choice for this role, for he shows just the right balance between slick professionalism and human frailty. Haller is good at what he does, but there are times we’re forced to wonder if it comes at too high a cost. He drinks a bit too much and was apparently a bad husband. He shares custody of his young daughter with his ex-wife, a rival attorney named Maggie (Marisa Tomei), with whom he still gets along with on a social basis. We unfortunately don’t see all that much of Tomei, but even her few scenes add greatly to the film, in large part because her character brings out the sensitivity and compassion Haller keeps on reserve.
If you grant that other legal thrillers have been made just as successfully, if you allow yourself to take in McConaughey’s engaging onscreen presence, you will be satisfied by The Lincoln Lawyer. What it lacks in originality it makes up for in pacing, performance, and style – especially when it comes to its leading man. Like Arthur Bach or Jack Sparrow, you’re unlikely to come across a character like Mickey Haller anytime in the near future. It’s always fun watching an original character working his or her magic in a conventional genre film. It also gives me hope for the future of direction and screenwriting; any filmmaker can follow a formula, but it takes skill, imagination, and guts to deliver a product that, even in the smallest of ways, defies our expectations.