There was a hot minute where you could really like Matthew McConaughey. It was around Dazed and Confused and Lone Star, and even going up to A Time To Kill. McConaughey had his own brand of roguish charisma - you’d have a great time going out to drink with him but he would totally end up fucking your girlfriend in the back seat of your car when you went to buy another round. And you might actually be okay with that, because he’d flash you that smile and drop a down home Texasism and make you feel like you were in.
But then McConaughey lost the page. He starred in Amistad, for one thing, trying to convince himself that he was a real actor. And then he began down a long road of cheap, bad romcoms and shitty midlevel action movies (although, to be fair, he is epic in Reign of Fire. Possibly his best, crazies performance). And then we all stopped even realizing that McConaughey made movies. As far as I was concerned his main job was getting photographed by paparazzi while jogging topless.
During the same time period that McConaughey frittered everything away, the legal thriller genre packed up and moved. It left its digs in your local theater and began setting up shop on TV, where you could watch courtroom intrigue most nights of the week in some form or other.
So The Lincoln Lawyer couldn’t come as a bigger surprise. It’s the first film in maybe a decade to use McConaughey completely right, and it’s the first cinematic legal thriller in forever that feels cinematic, and not like an episode of Law & Order or Castle or whatever. It’s like a one-two punch from the past saying ‘Motherfucker, get out your flannels because it’s the early 90s all over again.’ And I couldn’t be happier.
Based on Michael Connolly’s novel of the same name The Lincoln Lawyer isn’t about the Civil War. It also isn’t really about a car; McConaughey’s character Mickey Haller happens to use a Lincoln as his mobile office, but there aren’t many plot elements hinging on that fact. Mostly he uses it to get from A to B, and to take expositionary phone calls.
But don’t let that title fool you; this is a funny, well-written, impeccably acted, tight thriller. The story takes the concept of attorney-client privilege and imagines it as a way for a serial killer to not only hide his crimes but pin them on someone else. The trailer for the film gives away a little bit too much, but the way that the story swoops in and out of legal loopholes is actually exciting.
The coup here is casting McConaughey as Haller. Mickey Haller isn’t quite a conman, but he’s close. He lies to and manipulates people to get what he needs in order to get his clients off. And he does it all with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face. It’s a perfect part for McConaughey - roguish but not completely dickish. He does wrong but you forgive him for it. This is the kind of role that McConaughey was built for, and after a fifteen minute introduction to the character you all but forget about Failure To Launch and remember the smooth, handsome guy you used to like.
He’s surrounded by an incredible array of supporting actors. William H Macy delivers one of those particularly wonderful supporting roles he’s so good at, and Marisa Tomei adds a sense of weary realism to the picture. Josh Lucas could be the greatest bit of casting of all time - he plays the prosecutor going against McConaughey, and since the two actors are almost like matter/anti-matter versions of each other the sparks fly. Shea Whigham does what Shea Whigham always does in every single role - he knocks it right the fuck out of the park. This time he’s playing a shifty jailhouse snitch, and he’s electric and hilarious in his few minutes of screentime. Even Ryan Phillipe, as McConaughey’s client who doesn’t reveal everything about himself, is kind of terrific, something I never imagined I would be saying.
And how exciting is that? To have a list of actors (and I’ve only praised a few of the many, many strong performances in this film) each of whom is great, and each of whom is allowed to create a real character? Every character in the film feels like they had a life before their scene and (when they survive) will have a life after their scenes. Modern movies, with their by-the-numbers plots and archetypes instead of characters, so rarely have that feeling anymore.
Director Brad Furman wisely lets his actors go ahead and do their things. A legal thriller has to be an actor’s showcase, because when true to the genre they’re rarely tours de force of style; in fact the weakest bits of The Lincoln Lawyer come in the over-extended second act, where a drunken and guilt-ridden McConaughey is tormented by a shaky and out of focus camera too close to his greasy face.
Otherwise, though, Furman keeps it clean and simple without ever making it feel small screen. That’s partially achieved through interesting Los Angeles location shooting; Furman seems to be trying to shoot the parts of town that haven’t been shot a hundred times before (although some very, very familiar views and bridges do show up). There are only so many ways you can shoot a courtroom, but Furman makes the shots about his actors again and again, and sometimes there’s nothing more cinematic than a great performance getting its due from the camera.
There’s nothing that gets you more juiced than a good story well told, with strong characters well acted, and that’s what The Lincoln Lawyer offers up. The advertising campaign doesn’t seem to have a clue what the movie is - the poster looks like an ad for cologne or something - so just know that it’s a damn good movie, very much the kind that I wish they were making more of these days.