“Ain’t no love in the heart of the city,” moans Bobby Blue Bland. Meantime, the camera in The Lincoln Lawyer‘s first sequence seems barely able to keep up with Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey). As he glides from hallway to sidewalk to the back seat of his vintage Lincoln Town Car, he’s efficient, busy, and in charge, not exactly the plaintive soul embodied by Bland, but the tune makes its point. This beautiful, well-dressed white guy is a whirling dervish in the center of his own universe, slick and superficial, yes, but also cool enough to appreciate the blues.
A defense attorney for sleazy people who pay well, Mick uses money to make money, paying off paparazzi to impress naïve clients, doing favors for biker gangs so they’ll owe him later. “You woulda done all right on the streets,” smiles his driver, Earl (Laurence Mason), who’s black so he would know. Mick smiles back, one up: “Where do you think I am, Earl?” Indeed, he conducts much of his business from his car, his phone ever pressed to his ear. Understanding what he looks like in this particular criminal world, Mick has gone an extra step, surrounding himself with an admirably diverse staff: in addition to Earl, he’s got bail bondsman Val (John Leguizamo) to scout his cases, Lorna (Pell James) to keep track of his appointments, and Frank (William H. Macy) to do his detective work (it’s not incidental that he’s gay).
Of course, Mick is set for a fall, one the film telegraphs right away and often. The fact that you’re aware of where his new case is headed before he is might make you doubt his reputation for savvy. Apparently, he’s caught off guard because the client is white and wealthy. Accused of assaulting a prostitute he’s brought home from a bar, Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) puts on a good show, as the film offers alternative versions of the crime in multiple, CSI-style flashbacks. Piling on, it also offers Louis’ mother as Exhibit A for his guilt: the royally named Mary Windsor (Frances Fisher) is as cruel and officious a bad mom as ever you’ve seen in a genre picture. Surely, her son had no chance to be decent while in her clutches.
Such character types are to be expected in a movie based on one of Michael Connelly’s crime novels (Mickey Haller appears in a series). The problems Mick faces in The Lincoln Lawyer have less to do with specific times and places than with familiar fiction arcs. He’s got a past case that’s been bothering him, when he convinced Jesus (Michael Peña) to plead to a murder charge even though he insisted he was innocent. (A visit to Jesus in prison reveals that he’s harboring a major and understandable grudge, a nice-looking kid turned bald-headed and tattooed, missing his mother.) And he’s got an ex-wife, district attorney Maggie (Marisa Tomei), with whom he shares legal talk, occasional one-nighters, and an adorable little girl he drags along with him during last-minute investigations.
If Mick doesn’t learn to be a more responsible parent, he does learn that he’s a decidedly bad reader when it comes to his clients and, especially, his own limits. You know he’s in trouble when he says early on, “There’s no client as scary as an innocent man,” meaning, in his mind, he’d rather not know, and also, he feels badly about Jesus. But this also means that he hasn’t thought very hard about the threat posed by the non-innocent man, in particular the one who “looks” innocent. If casting the perpetually juvenile Phillippe advances this confusion, the cat-and-mousey shenanigans that constitute the white boys’ interactions are awfully straightforward.
That is, both players recognize the game they’re in. They understand their raced and gendered privilege, to a point: they know they’ll get benefits of doubt in public forums—like courtrooms and news reports—and they get the advantage of money. Louis has lots, which gives him something of an edge, but he’s also got a double dose of arrogance. This makes him easy to dislike, and helps Mick seem less loathsome. As he comes to see that the legal deals he cuts have moral and very personal dimensions (really?), he comes to see as well that many of those he helps also resent him, precisely because his white-guyness is so crucial to his professional success, which translates to their legal win.
The movie can’t precisely or consistently interrogate this system of wins and losses, the ways that the law is not about justice or equality but is instead (and blatantly) about class, race, and power hierarchies. It has, instead, to show Mick as master of this system, the lone individual who can make it work.
And so, the clichés. Earl’s trite driverly wisdom is matched by Jesus’ reminders that Mick failed not only him, but also his poor mother. Neither is it a surprise that Mick, pressed hard by the wily Louis, will need to work outside strictly legal parameters to extract vengeance or that this moment is violent and ugly and designed for maximum viewer satisfaction. The formula is easy, but that’s its problem too. There’s no love or heart in this city, only music cues.