I first met Haller in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novel called The Black Echo which was penned nearly twenty years ago in 1992. But I just read that novel only a few months back in November. The Haller character had little more than an extended walk on in that novel, and really didn’t make an impact on me.
But now here he is, straight from the pages of his own Connelly novels, embodied by McConaughey in a brand new film, The Lincoln Lawyer. Don’t be misled by the title. It is not a reference to either Abe Lincoln, nor is it a reference to anything to do with Washington, DC and its emblematic Lincoln Memorial. Instead, it references that Haller the lawyer is office-less, or rather his office is a big black Lincoln automobile.
He’s not a celebrity attorney, nor is he an attorney for celebrities and/ or the wealthy – until his bail-bondsmen chum Val Valenzuela played by John Leguizamo (below), points Haller towards a big-ticket client named Louis Roulet played by Ryan Phillippe. Roulet has been busted for allegedly beating and raping a prostitute. Haller meets him in the lockup before his Inglewood bail hearing. Roulet declares his innocence.
When Haller tells the client’s mother played by Frances Fisher, and her big shot corporate attorney (Bob Gunton – the warden in The Shawshank Redemption) that he’ll need a 100K up front retainer, and another 100K due at the trial plus $550 an hour billable – they don’t bat an eye. Looks like a big pay day for Haller.
But that’s the last of the big money in this film. Not only is Haller a low-rent, low tech, office-less attorney, but the film has a decidedly no glamor look and feel to it. There’s no drinks at posh watering holes, no dinners at chic LA restaurants, no Beverly Hills mansions, no Malibu beaches or swimming pools, and most of all, not one sunset to be seen.
But Haller is a smart dude. Maybe his clients are low-level drug traffickers, murderers, bikers, hookers, and the like, but Haller is successful in defending them. So much so, that many of the LA detectives, as well as many of the ADA’s hate him. But Haller wears this as a badge of honor. The license plate on his black Lincoln reads “NTGUILTY”.
There’s your set up. A client claiming his innocence, a beaten hooker, and as Haller and his investigator Frank Levin played marvelously by William Macy, look around, some doubts begin to creep into play. Maybe this trust funder isn’t as clean as he says he is. Maybe the hooker set him up so she might get her pay day in civil court. Maybe there’s more, much more to this than anyone, including Haller had thought.
Directed by Brad Forman, with a screenplay by Joe Romano adapted from Michael Connelly’s novel, this is a whole lot more than just a passable crime and courtroom drama. In fact, it is downright entertaining. McConaughey will make you forget about his rom/com, heart-throb, prior pretty-boy roles. Here he is not only smart and tough and charming, but he is also very believable in the role. This is not to say that he’s lost some charisma, instead he’s added some grit, and looks a little worn around the edges.
The supporting cast (Marisa Tomei, Josh Lucas, and a host of others) is excellent and the film does grab you and then keep you involved. The script has no major surprises, but it does toss a few unexpected as well as expected twists at you. The direction is straight forward as Forman has opted to simply bring the story to screen instead of trying to wow us with gimmicky editing, angles, or other kinds of directorial excesses.
This is not quite noir, definitely not glitz, and you might begin to feel a bit dirty after all is said and done. That would be because the ethics of the defenders, the cops, and the prosecutors definitely won’t pass the white glove test. In fact, the sole character in this exercise who comes out without a blemish is the judge.
But if you substitute entertainment values for ethical considerations, you do end up with a win-win movie.