Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Michael Haller (Matthew McConaughey) never met a criminal he didn’t like. He charges miscreants enormous fees and cleverly twists the justice system to deliver that precious “not guilty” verdict. The more often Haller’s clients get thrown back on the street, the sooner they’ll get arrested and come looking for his services again. Criminals can easily find Haller—his office is in the back seat of a chauffer-driven luxury Lincoln Town Car that bears the license plate “NTGUILTY.”
But all of Haller’s clients are low-lifes—petty thieves, prostitutes, drug addicts, Harley-Davidson riding meth dealers. He’d sure appreciate a really big client, with a high-profile, media-frenzied case to gush out free publicity. When such a case drops in his lap, out of the seeming blue, Heller is thrilled. Getting rich Beverly Hills baby-faced playboy Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) acquitted from the charge of brutally beating a prostitute (Margarita Levieva) should be a cinch. If Haller becomes a celebrity lawyer, maybe he can crawl back into the good graces of ex-wife Maggie McPherson (Marisa Tomei), even if she is a prosecuting attorney and thinks his chosen career is scum.
Haller’s faithful sidekick and thoughtful private investigator Frank Levin (William H. Macy) worries that Roulet’s defensive story is suspicious. Haller dismisses his concerns—he assumes all his clients are guilty. “No client is as scary as an innocent man,” he intones. “If you screw up and send an innocent man to prison you’ll never be able to live with yourself.” There’s only one verdict Haller is prepared to get in this case—”not guilty.”
Since The Lincoln Lawyer is a thriller and based on Michael Connelly’s terrific 2005 novel of the same name, weird and nasty things soon start happening. Haller discovers Roulet is not the golden boy he pretends to be. And the few times he meets the elegant “Mom” Roulet, (Frances Fisher), she resembles Medusa more than Mrs. Cleaver.
As Haller speeds from the court downtown to the one an hour away in the Valley several times a day, his team gets to work. From bondsman (John Leguizamo) to jail snitch, from former clients, to police detectives, in obscure records and frayed photographs, Haller finds pieces of a shocking truth.
Haunting him is the growing realization that months before, he might have allowed an innocent man (Michael Pena) to be sent to prison. “I want to make it right!” he cries. But is such a thing possible in the cynical, often corrupt world of the imperfect American criminal justice system? The principle of attorney-client privilege that binds Haller feels like a noose around his soul.
The Lincoln Lawyer unfurls at a fascinating pace, careening from one dirty secret to another, exposing Los Angeles’ unpretty underbelly. The danger is real and palpable. The courtroom scenes with the idealistic prosecuting attorney (Josh Lucas) are intellectual jousting matches. McConaughey shines in this role, giving it the sleazy charm and lawyerly skill that pleases audiences and makes film producers start planning sequels. He has redeemed himself from his dreadful string of rom-coms and returned to the early promise he showed, playing another attorney, in A Time to Kill (1996).
As entertaining as Lawyer is, it’s not perfect. A hero is only heroic as the villain is nasty and Ryan Phillippe is not on screen long enough to give us the creeps—so it might be a tad unfair fair to call him the worst actor on the planet. The twist ending is good but it happens so quickly, our desires for revenge are short-circuited. Considering that it’s only his second feature film, director Brad Furman (The Take, 2007) has proved he has the mojo to be a great director someday. In the meantime, he has to learn how to pace his final scenes so his films’ endings are as wham-bang as their openings.
Verdict? The Lincoln Lawyer is definitely worth seeing, but don’t feel guilty if you do so at the bargain matinee.