By Joseph Wright.
Gritty and ruthless are not adjectives that I had ever associated with Matthew McConaughey following his work in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009) and Failure to Launch (2006), however, they hardly do the actor justice regarding his performance as Mick Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer.
The film centers around McConaughey’s character, a sly defense attorney preferring the backseat of his Lincoln to a desk chair in an office building, who cruises the California streets negotiating with criminals and defending the guilty with aid from his loyal driver, Earl. Although specializing in gruesome degenerates, Haller embarks on the case of inherently wealthy playboy, Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), per his request. Roulet, a handsome 32-year-old who has endured a lifetime of pampering and “never hearing the word ‘no,’” does not fit the prototype of a Haller client; however, his recent arrest for assault intrigues Haller enough to take the case. Haller, by his own admission, will not defend an innocent man and is skeptical regarding Roulet’s innocence from the outset; could this actually become a crime/thriller about a lawyer trying to prove his client’s guilt?
As the story proceeds, important plot-points are revealed not through shocking twists, but as shuttering facts that the viewer and Haller learn simultaneously. The perfectly-paced script is something that John Romano can take pride in, and Brad Furman, relatively unknown and perhaps under-qualified as a director, created a shockingly well-polished finished product; however, the standout effort comes from Lukas Ettlin and his cinematography.
Much like Haller’s wardrobe of blatant black-and-white suits that reflect his “no flash, all business” persona, Ettlin masterfully transforms the bright and vibrant streets of California into fairly static, gray and bland frames. In stark contrast to his dull present day, Ettlin’s flashback sequences are fast -paced, colorful and hectic. Recounting the assault for which Roulet is accused, for example, the viewer is jetted from the tame office into a past filled with intense camera movement and green and orange lighting that quite resembles Ettlin’s work in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006). The understated cinematography is so effective because it is just that: understated. Without trying to do too much, Ettlin’s cinematography creates the powerful mood of the film without overstepping its bounds.
As shocking as this was to me, considering the fact that it’s a Matthew McConaughey picture, the other true strong-suit of the film lies in the performances of the actors. McConaughey truly astounds in this vastly different role from his work throughout the bulk of his career. Sure, he puts off a bit of a greasy, dirty vibe while playing the bongos in the nude in his backyard for instance, but not like this. This is the type of “greasy and dirty” that was mastered by the likes of Robert DeNiro and Ray Liotta in the Scorsese pictures of the 1990s. Intense, fiery and real are ranges of acting that one may not associate with McConaughey following a screening of Fool’s Gold (2008); however, McConaughey’s Haller is just that. The actor is extremely honest while his character is anything but; maintaining his Texas diction, McConaughey achieves a marvelous combination of a mellow California beach-bum, and a crooked New York gangster. Equally as enthralling are Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe, Josh Lucas, and Michael Peña; topping off this fantastic cast are John Leguizamo, Bryan Cranston, and William H. Macy in bit parts. Altogether, a foolproof cast of superstars.
Whether it is the artfully told story, beautifully constructed framework, or remarkable acting performances that draw you to a film, The Lincoln Lawyer is immensely appealing.
Joseph Wright is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Executive Producers David Kern, Eric Reid, Bruce Toll
Director Brad Furman
Editor Jeff McEvoy
Writers Michael Connelly (novel), John Romano (screenplay)
Cinematography Lukas Ettlin