Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was The Lincoln Lawyer, a 2011 production from Lionsgate Entertainment (that’s how the name is spelled in their logo — all one word, and in fact in all caps — though the company is usually referred to as “Lions Gate,” two words but without the apostrophe, and their logo is a couple of giant gates with metal sculptures of lions emblazoned on them being swung into place by such an elaborately stylized array of gears it looks like “Metropolis Productions” would be a better name for them) along with Lakeshore Entertainment (whose logo, even dorkier than Lionsgate’s, is a scrawny little boy jumping off a mini-boardwalk into a lake that hardly looks deep enough for him to swim in) and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment — Sidney Kimmel was also the producer of this film (to the extent that any movie these days has just one producer!) and I had visions of him watching the rough cut of the movie, not liking it, and saying in his best Queen Victoria impression, “We are not entertained.”
It’s based on a novel by Michael Connelly, who seems to me to be one of the few writers today who’s actually achieved the authentic noir voice even though most of his novels are either police procedurals (usually featuring his running character, middle-aged and dyspeptic LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch) or legal thrillers and to my knowledge he’s never attempted a private-eye story à la Hammett or Chandler. I’d read the book a few years ago but oddly had completely forgotten the plot (though fragments of it came back to me as the movie unreeled): slimeball defense attorney Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey, essentially reprising his role from the film of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill and still a handsome man but visibly older and seedier, as befits his role) is representing mostly prostitutes and drug dealers, along with members of a motorcycle gang who apparently are running a meth lab in the desert (they refer to it as a “farm” but given the level of police scrutiny of it, it’s obviously not producing agricultural edibles, and it appears to be making enough money and operating sufficiently under the radar it can’t be a marijuana grow) and have Haller more or less on retainer (“repeat customers,” he calls them) to handle the defense of any of their number who happens to get popped — including a young man with scraggly hair and a scrawny beard who looks like he got the role by taking first prize in a Charles Manson impersonation contest.
Needless to say, Haller — who suffers from the other actors’ inability to come to consensus on how to pronounce his last name: it usually comes out “Holler,” sometimes “Heller” — is looking for a big-ticket case that will be his way out of a lifestyle that, though he has a home, requires him to run his practice out of his big Lincoln town car (hence the title) because he apparently can’t afford an office (though he’s got plenty of money to bribe bailiffs and the like). He thinks he’s found it when his friend, bail bondsman Val Valenzuela (John Leguizamo), refers him to defend spoiled rich kid Louis Roulet (Ryan Philippe), who’s under indictment for assault with a deadly weapon. It seems he picked up a prostitute at a bar, invited her to his home and then raped her and cut her up with a knife — though his version of the story is that she made a play for him, slipping him her address on a cocktail napkin, only when he went over there he was conked on the head and rendered unconscious almost immediately, and he feels he’s been set up by the woman and the older boyfriend she was with that night, who drives a blue Ford Mustang. One of Haller’s contacts in the justice system slips him a copy of the police file on the case, which contains a photo of a knife that isn’t Roulet’s, but later Haller receives the real police file as legitimate discovery and the photo is of a different knife that is Roulet’s.
Looking at the photo of the wounded girl, Haller goes into a flashback and notes its similarity to that of the dead victim in a previous case he handled, in which a Latino allegedly murdered a prostitute, slashing her face and vagina to ribbons. In that case Haller’s client at first asserted his innocence, then let Haller talk him into accepting a plea deal that would get him a life sentence (which as a practical matter would mean he’d get out in 15 years) instead of the death penalty — only now, from the similarity in the wound patterns, Haller concludes that Roulet committed both crimes and the victim in his current case, Reggie Campo (Margarita Levieva), was lucky to escape with her life. (She escaped because two neighbors — “a faggot couple,” Roulet calls them — overpowered Roulet and literally sat on him until the police arrived and arrested him.) Haller’s suspicions that Roulet is actually guilty harden when his own investigator, Frank Levin (a nicely seedy William H. Macy), is killed and Haller himself is framed for the crime. During a meeting just before trial — since Haller doesn’t have an office of his own, it takes place in the offices of Cecil Dobbs (Bob Gunton), a civil attorney who handles the business affairs of Roulet and his formidable mother, Mary Windsor (Frances Fisher) — Roulet confesses to the earlier murder but doesn’t mention the killing of Frank. Haller’s dilemma thus becomes how to live up to his legal duty of representing Roulet’s interests and winning him an acquittal in the current case while still nailing him for the murder — and doing so without using any of the information Roulet has given him, which he can’t reveal because Roulet is protected by attorney-client privilege.
As if that weren’t enough plot for you, Haller also has an ex-wife, Maggie McPherson — nicknamed “Maggie McFierce” — with whom he had a daughter, Hayley (Mackenzie Aladjem), and though they occasionally get together and even have sex, their split seems mainly motivated by the fact that she remained a prosecutor after he quit to become a defense attorney and she can’t get over her contempt for all the scumbags he puts back on the streets despite her best efforts to convict them. She was originally assigned to prosecute the Roulet case, but when Haller signed on as the defense attorney she recused herself and the case fell to Ted Minton (Josh Lucas), a pretty generic garden-variety movie prosecutor in the Hamilton Burger mold, a plodder easily outwitted by the star defense-attorney protagonist. It ends with Minton putting a notorious jailhouse snitch on the stand and Haller easily discrediting him, but not before the snitch has mentioned that Roulet committed murder in the earlier case and therefore put that information on the record in a way Haller can’t be held responsible for — and a bizarre confrontation between Haller and Roulet in which, anxious to forestall Roulet’s planned kidnapping of Hayley as revenge for her dad’s having set him up for a murder charge, Haller called in his friends from the motorcycle gang (ya remember the motorcycle gang?) to beat up Roulet (“I just want him hospitalized, not killed,” Haller explains) and smash his beloved black Maserati sports car — and then there’s a shootout between Haller and, of all people, Roulet’s mother, Mary Windsor, who it turned out killed Haller’s investigator Frank Levin (ya remember Frank Levin?) because he had found a piece of evidence (a parking ticket) linking Roulet to the previous murder.
While modishly neo-noir in its cynicism and its total rejection of any milk of kindness in human nature — Haller may get justice done at the end but he’s as much an opportunistic slimeball at the end of the movie as he was at the beginning — at least The Lincoln Lawyer isn’t as cynical and despairing as the works of James Ellroy or the movies based on them, and though director Brad Furman (who’s Brad Furman?) is pretty undistinguished and one misses the élan with which a 1940’s director like Hitchcock, Huston or Hawks could have handled this story, it’s a quite effective professionally made movie, well adapted by John Romano from Connelly’s already cinematic novel, and with a chilling performance by Ryan Philippe as the principal villain. He’s neither exaggeratedly overplayed like Lawrence Tierney in Born to Kill and The Hoodlum nor exaggeratedly underplayed like Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train or Anthony Perkins in Psycho (the two Hitchcock films that between them revolutionized the depiction of criminal psychopathology on screen); he’s just an ordinary guy with too much money for his own good, who just happens to have as his hobby murdering people and then setting other people up to take the fall, and by his sheer ordinariness and banality Philippe out-acts the rest of the cast — McConaughey is professional but uninspiring as usual (there’s a reason this guy hasn’t become a superstar despite landing a dream series of parts) but Macy, Tomei and especially Frances Fisher as the psycho’s mom are excellent and well worth watching.