Movie Review: The Lincoln Lawyer

By Matthew Huntley

March 30, 2011

You're not the boss of me. And you're not so big.

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The Lincoln Lawyer is sort of a high-level combination of “Law and Order” and “CSI.” Both of those shows are mainstream and abide by a formula, week after week. But they are also well-made (or can be), and so is this movie. For a genre picture, it’s taut, rhythmic and intelligent. If crime dramas are your thing, then The Lincoln Lawyer is right up your alley; if good movies are your thing, then it’s also worth considering.

The story and setup are familiar: a slick, street-wise lawyer named Mick Heller (Matthew McConaughey), whose chauffeur parades him around Los Angeles in a Lincoln town car, is dealt a case that could either pay off huge or cost him everything he has, including his life. Heller’s client: Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a spoiled mamma’s boy who claims he’s innocent of the rape and assault charges recently brought against him. The victim is a prostitute whom Louis believes is setting him up just to score an easy settlement because he has money — he works for his mother’s (Frances Fisher) realty business and earns over half a million dollars a year.

With the Roulet’s family lawyer (Bob Gunton) and Heller’s private investigator (William H. Macy) present, Louis tells his side of the story as the movie goes into a quick flashback sequence, “CSI”-style. Amidst the swishes, swooshes, blown-out colors, grainy imagery and handheld camera work, we’re supposed to ask ourselves whether we (or Heller) should believe Louis’ story, which is standard practice for movies like this.

But the plot deviates from the usual formula when Heller finds a connection between Roulet’s case and a former one that sent his previous client (Michael Pena) to prison to serve 15 years of a life sentence. Louis’ innocence is no longer the plot’s primary focus. It becomes more about the lengths Heller will go to, as he says, “make things right.”


More of the plot I will not say, but it unfolds in a formidable, entertaining thriller with strong performances and exceptional direction from Brad Furman. I was particularly mindful of the way Furman held on his actors and let the close-ups of their faces reveal their thoughts and expressions. Take, for instance, the exchange between McConaughey and Phillippe when Louis recollects the night of the crime. The movie is too smart to lead us down the idiot plot path where Heller would automatically believe what he is being told, but his wit and caution aren’t stated with words. We see it in McConaughey’s eyes, tone and steadfast expression as he stares down Phillippe. Such moments are fierce and powerful.

One aspect of the movie that seemed slightly incomplete was Heller’s relationship with Maggie (Marisa Tomei), another lawyer and the mother of Heller’s daughter. Maggie’s character never seemed fully realized and while the screenplay insinuates things about their past, I’m willing to bet more detail and investment was developed in the novel by Michael Connelly. The movie didn’t seem like it really knew what to do with Maggie other than when the plot required her presence.

As far as crime dramas go, it would be too much to say The Lincoln Lawyer brings anything new to the table, but of the things it does deliver, it delivers them well. It’s energetic, skillfully paced and it maintains our curiosity for how it’s going to end. Plus we genuinely care about the characters and their burdens. For a genre picture, especially one that entertains us and keeps us involved, it’s hard to ask for anything more.



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