As sleazy defense attorney Mickey Haller, Matthew McConaughey has found a career-best role in The Lincoln Lawyer (so named because Haller operates out of the backseat of a Lincoln Town Car, lest you get it confused with Robert Redford’s underrated Lincoln assassination trial drama The Conspirator.)
Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Connelly, the film is a tightly-scripted and efficiently-directed courtroom thriller, not entirely dissimilar to the wave of John Grisham adaptations that dotted screens throughout the 1990s (McConaughey starred in one of those, too – A Time to Kill). But the Haller character, a streetwise, morally dubious lawyer who’s always one step ahead of his clients, the police, and the prosecution, adds a kind of seedy underbelly to the film that packs a punch.
My only real gripe with the film is also the one thing that makes it really interesting. Halfway through the film, everything is revealed, all cards are put on the table – great, I thought, because I knew where this was going and didn’t want to see it devolve into a did-he-or-didn’t-he mystery. With that knowledge, however, Haller finds himself caught in an impossible predicament, and spends the rest of the film trying to work his way out of it.
That impossible predicament is caused by attorney-client privilege; the client reveals all bad deeds, and the lawyer is helpless to expose them. Only confessional Priests, like Montgomery Clift in Hitchcock’s I Confess or Richard Burton in Anthony Schaffer’s Absolution, find themselves caught in similar situations. Out in the audience, we find it hard to relate; when we’re talking about past, present, and future murders, screw your rules and regulations, there’s an obviously right thing to do.
Of course, when a scummy defense lawyer finds himself at this moral crisis, it adds a satisfyingly ironic twist. What isn’t satisfying here is the finale, which relies less on Haller’s wits to get out of the situation, and more on a traditional meltdown by one of the villains.
Backtracking: while bouncing from one client to the next, Haller is called in to defend Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a spoiled rich kid accused of raping and beating a prostitute (Margarita Levieva). Roulet is adamant about his innocence, and Haller, at first, is inclined to believe him. But something seems off, and Haller is reminded of an old case in which he convinced another adamantly-innocent man (Michael Peña) to plead guilty to avoid the death penalty
The Lincoln Lawyer features a pretty terrific supporting cast, including Marisa Tomei as Haller’s ex-wife (and mother of his child), who happens to be a prosecuting attorney, William H. Macy as Haller’s private investigator, Frances Fisher as Roulet’s mother, Bob Gunton as the family’s attorney, Josh Lucas as the prosecutor, and Bryan Cranston and Michael Paré (!) as police detectives.
But McConaughey owns the film, and it’s just about the best work he’s ever done. It’s only been 15 years since he was working with Richard Linklater, John Sayles, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, and Ron Howard, and ten since he made Frailty and Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (both pretty underrated). Since then, however, he’s been stuck in rom-com hell; hopefully this can help to dig him out.
Bonus: an especially well-chosen soundtrack, including the original version of Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City by Bobby “Blue” Bland, which plays out over the opening credits and perfectly sets the tone for the film.