Matthew McConaughey and stellar ensemble shine in understated crime drama
Well-cast and well-shot crime drama is a breath of fresh air
The Lincoln Lawyer, adapted from a Michael Connelly novel, is a very lively hybrid—a funky-flavored crime story with elements of detective yarn, courtroom drama, private-eye farrago, police procedural, and an offbeat take on crime and punishment as practiced around contemporary Los Angeles.
The title character (a quietly intense Matthew McConaughey) conducts much of his business from the backseat of his chauffeured Lincoln sedan, and his most loyal and frequent clients include a motorcycle gang—all of which intermittently makes The Lincoln Lawyer into an oddball sort of road movie as well. And since that title character is a quirky mixture of sleazy opportunism and fierce integrity, the film also has a streak of thorny character study running through it.
Genre dynamics prevail throughout, but the key characters crackle with nongeneric complexity. McConaughey’s Mick Haller is a very talented rascal with a surprisingly sharp conscience, a smooth operator who finds himself in an unusually dramatic moral and ethical bind. And his high-profile client of the moment, a SoCal real-estate scion (Ryan Phillippe) charged with murdering a prostitute, is a mercurial sort whose mask of privileged cluelessness is just the first factor in the increasingly disturbing evolution of his character.
Brad Furman’s follow-up to his little-noticed debut film, The Take (2007), makes pungent use of the iconic values in his thoroughly intriguing cast. McConaughey and Phillippe are both very good, but what The Lincoln Lawyer has on display is not so much good acting as good casting and direction. The two principals’ richest moments have nothing to do with scenery chewing and everything to do with shrewd choices of visual context and emotional nuance.
At least eight notable supporting actors are similarly well-employed. William H. Macy is a charmingly shaggy presence as Haller’s sidekick/investigator, and John Leguizamo is nicely understated as a double-dealing bail-bondsman. Michael Peña and Margarita Levieva make sharp impressions as convicted Haller clients who figure into his current cases.
Marisa Tomei never submits to stereotype in an otherwise generic role—Haller’s not entirely alienated ex-wife. Frances Fisher is very sharp as the Phillippe character’s imperiously chic mother. Bryan Cranston and Michael Paré make small, succinct additions to the film’s gallery of paradoxical role players.
Not the least of the film’s brisk, off-center pleasures is its shrewdly casual approach to its L.A. backdrops. Furman and cinematographer Lukas Ettlin steer clear of the iconic L.A. of movies and TV, and instead make a low-key kind of poetry out of miscellaneous locations that are redolent of the more nondescript SoCal sights.