Matthew McConaughey Returns to His Dramatic Roots in ‘The Lincoln Lawyer”’

[13 July 2011]

By Lorraine Zago Rosenthal

The Lincoln Lawyer smoothly glides onto the screen with a soulful soundtrack and hazy cinematography that is reminiscent of a ‘70s TV crime drama. Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey), a defense attorney, is first seen in his “office”—a chauffer-driven Lincoln Town Car that navigates the streets of Los Angeles with a license plate reading NTGUILTY.

The plate is symbolic of Mick’s philosophy, which is that everyone in his seedy client base is “not guilty” rather than innocent. Mick chooses to view his clients this way, because he dreads losing a case in which a defendant has truly done nothing wrong.

Mick is smart and streetwise. He fights for his clients, but he won’t do it for free. When one of them is late with a payment, Mick cleverly delays legal proceedings by telling the judge that he can’t locate his witness, “Mr. Green.” Mick is a fierce advocate who never hesitates to skirt the law for the benefit of his clients (or himself), but he also has a softer side. He’s a loving father to his young daughter, he often ignites the spark that lingers between him and his prosecutor ex-wife, Maggie (Marisa Tomei), and he is a loyal friend to his investigator, Frank Levin (William H. Macy).

Mick seems content in his career and with his employers, who consist mostly of motorcycle gang members and drug-addicted hookers. But his flow is disrupted when Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe)—a Beverly Hills playboy accused of brutally assaulting a prostitute—becomes his newest client.

Louis insists that he is innocent, and claims that the supposed victim is a scheming opportunist with eyes on his family’s fortune. This seems plausible to Mick, and he puts Louis into the “not guilty” category as he eagerly accepts Louis’s prompt payments. But Mick’s investigator is skeptical, and when tragedy befalls Frank, Mick begins to see Louis, and himself, quite differently.

Mick sees that he is being manipulated, and he discovers that the dark shadow of the powerful Roulet clan has been cast over him. But most frighteningly, Mick’s greatest fear has come true. He realizes that there was a reason Louis requested his services. And that reason has something to do with Mick’s former client, who is currently serving a harsh sentence in San Quentin and might be innocent. “I was afraid that I wouldn’t recognize innocence,” Mick says. But now he is afraid of “evil…pure evil.”

Matthew McConaughey makes a triumphant return to a dramatic role after years of inexplicably wasting himself on romantic comedies—and he is not the least bit rusty. He handles the nuances of his multi-faceted character well—as does Marisa Tomei—although the relationship between Mick and Maggie is never thoroughly explored. There is still passion between them, and other than a brief argument during which Maggie voices her displeasure about Mick returning criminals to the street while she struggles to keep them in jail, the reason for their divorce is a mystery. This is unfortunate, because further exploration of the couple’s relationship would have added to both characters’ depth.

Louis is also a mystery. Phillippe’s portrayal of an arrogant, spoiled rich boy is flawless—right down to Louis’s smug smile. But the character is written as a one-dimensional villain with no obvious motivations for his violent and misogynistic tendencies. He is reduced to a caricature, when he could have been so much more.

Another misstep happens during Louis’s trial. Things aren’t going well for the District Attorney (Josh Lucas), and he looks dismayed, crushed, like he’s suffering from a blinding tension headache. Although the talented and often-underrated Lucas delivers a good performance as the straitlaced prosecutor, in this scene he is failed by the director and by a lack of realism in the script. Until this point, Minton is depicted as a competent attorney. But a competent attorney wouldn’t let the entire courtroom know that he lacks confidence in his case. Minton’s behavior doesn’t ring true, and an understated reaction would have been more believable.

These weaknesses do not, however, spoil a film that is well-acted and abundant in plot. The setting is splendid and a crucial aspect of the story, as it subtly compares the darkness of life as Mick knows it to Louis’s pampered existence. This is skillfully achieved through the juxtaposition of grimy streets with sunset-smeared skies and the sparkling lights of the glamorous part of Los Angeles—a part that is close yet so far away.

The script creatively pays homage to ‘40s crime noir with references to Mick’s gun, which was once owned by the mobster Mickey Cohen. It also winks at the sordid history of the Los Angeles Police Department in the vein of L.A. Confidential, and these historical details add much richness to the film. 

The Lincoln Lawyer is an entertaining legal thriller filled with twists, turns, and an array of surprises and edge-of-your-seat moments. But most importantly, the film is about an attorney who finally sees past the cynicism and moral murkiness that once defined him.

The DVD is packed with absorbing extras, including deleted scenes and interviews with Michael Connelly (the author of the novel on which the film was based), Matthew McConaughey, and the film’s writer and one of its producers. Most noteworthy is the discussion of the challenges involved in adapting a novel to the screen, how Connelly chose to portray the “real LA” instead of the “Hollywood LA”, and how difficult it can be for an author to give up control of his work to filmmakers. Interestingly, Connelly reveals the inspiration for The Lincoln Lawyer, which was a chance meeting with a real-life LA attorney who worked out of his car.

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