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The Lincoln Lawyer

Reviewed by Pete Falconer.

Director Brad Furman
Length 118 mins
Certificate 15 / R
Rating ******----
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 3

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The legal thriller is a mainstay of popular film and fiction, and it can be a rewarding form. Linking a sensational crime story to the internal processes of the law can add depth and resonance to standard mystery and suspense elements. If taken too far, however, this can easily lead to pomposity and self-importance. Although The Lincoln Lawyer isn’t the most distinguished or memorable of movies, it manages to avoid the grandstanding that can mar legal thrillers. For the most part, it is complex enough to be interesting, but light enough to be fun.

The titular lawyer is Mickey Haller (Matthew McConaughey), a louche but charming defence attorney who has a mobile office in the back seat of his Lincoln Town Car. He takes on the case of Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a wealthy young estate agent accused of brutally beating Regina Campo (Margarita Levieva). As he gathers evidence for the trial, Haller comes to realise that the surface details of the case conceal something altogether more sinister.

The movie handles its intricate plot well. It moves between incidents with clarity and a general lack of fuss. With too many contemporary thrillers seeming to equate ambiguity with incoherence and suspense with withholding important information, this is a real strength. The only downside is that it takes too long to resolve the various plot strands at the end of the film. Because each strand is dealt with separately, there are effectively three endings - any climactic impact there might be is spread too thinly across them. I suspect that this approach may have worked better in the Michael Connelly novel on which the movie is based. Chapter divisions, and the more restricted flow of information possible within conventional prose styles, can better accommodate a longer climax.

The style of the film walks a similar line between economical and laboured. At its best, it is sharp, direct and uncluttered, director Brad Furman letting the story develop without unnecessary ornamentation. Furman and his cinematographer Lukas Ettlin use bright light to give a hard, brittle feel to the film’s Los Angeles exteriors, corporate boardrooms and the court where Roulet’s trial takes place. The courtroom is a particularly expressive location - its combination of artificial lighting, inexpensive decor and restricted space drains any sense of grandeur from the proceedings. This allows us to concentrate on the more interesting internal drama, as Haller, although caught up in the dark complexities that surround his case, maintains his professional facade.

The film is on less assured stylistic ground when it tries to convey intensity, or suggest a more subjective perspective. At these points, the standard contemporary repertoire of camera and post-production tricks emerges and the film feels anonymous and forgettable. The movie’s overall combination of retro flourishes (Haller’s pristine 1980s-style Town Car, the funky soul and old-school hip hop on the soundtrack) and a slick modern sensibility is reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh, but without the greater sense of assurance that his direction would bring.

The single best thing about this movie is its casting. McConaughey justifies the heavy emphasis on his performance by holding the film together. Because it is quickly established that Haller is something of a shyster, McConaughey’s pretty boy persona is placed in a more interesting context. We recognise both the power of his charm and its limitations. His distinctive Texas drawl adds another nice dimension to the character - it suggests both the smooth persuasiveness of the good ol’ boy car salesman and the vulnerability of an outsider in the big city.

Although the focus is very much on the protagonist, he is offset by an unusually strong supporting cast, including Marisa Tomei, John Leguizamo and the always delightful William H. Macy. The proliferation of recognisable character actors from cinema and television enriches the milieu that the film depicts, bringing a human dimension to its familiar movie Los Angeles.

This is not a movie of great beauty or emotional impact. It is, however, a tightly constructed and enjoyable piece of entertainment. Despite its minor excesses and indulgences, The Lincoln Lawyer can inspire some cautious hope for a robust Hollywood mainstream.

This review was published on March 28, 2011.