x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The Lincoln Lawyer

Matthew McConaughey gives his best performance in years in The Lincoln Lawyer, an intelligent dialogue driven thriller.

Matthew McConaughey, left, plays a defence lawyer and Josh Lucas is a state prosecutor in The Lincoln Lawyer.
Matthew McConaughey, left, plays a defence lawyer and Josh Lucas is a state prosecutor in The Lincoln Lawyer.

The Lincoln Lawyer

Director: Brad Furman

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, William H Macy, Ryan Phillippe

Matthew McConaughey should stick to playing lawyers. Fifteen years ago, he sizzled in the John Grisham adaptation A Time to Kill. Since then, it's like he's spent a decade-and-a-half in a Hollywood vacuum. Misfiring action movies such as Sahara and Reign of Fire jostle with toe-curling romantic comedies such as Failure to Launch and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past on his CV. Given such questionable decision-making, you can only assume the star of Dazed and Confused has been just that.

So thank goodness for The Lincoln Lawyer. An absorbing adaptation of Michael Connelly's 2005 page-turner, McConaughey gives his best performance in years. He plays Mick Haller, an amoral Los Angeles defence lawyer who runs his business from the back of a Lincoln town car (complete with "NTGUILTY" licence plates). "How does someone like you sleep at night with all the scum you represent?" asks one cop. Easy - he's a hustler who understands the way of the streets.

His latest case is a high-end money-spinner involving Louis Roulet (Phillippe, perfectly cast), the only son of a wealthy Beverly Hills estate agent (Frances Fisher), accused by a prostitute of battery and attempted rape. Pleading doe-eyed innocence, Roulet claims he's been set up. It's a theory that doesn't wash with Haller's own private investigator (Macy).

Looking increasingly haggard as the trial unfurls, Haller gradually comes to realise that this is no open-and-shut case. Not least due to the fact he's forced to reassess the innocence of an incarcerated former client (Michael Peña) whose own fate has become inextricably linked with Roulet's. Haller is left to consider words from his own legendary lawyer father: "There's no client as scary as an innocent man." But as he wrestles with his own conscience, what's pleasing is that we don't see him undergo the sort of nausea-inducing moral epiphany of which Hollywood is so fond.

The Lincoln Lawyer works because it studiously avoids black-and-white characterisations. Just because Haller operates by his own code of ethics, it doesn't make him a total deadbeat - witness his affection for his daughter and ex-wife (Tomei), with whom he still shares a spark. While he may not quite reach the brilliance of Paul Newman's ambulance chaser in The Verdict, McConaughey embodies these contradictions perfectly.

Around him, credit the director Furman (whose only previous effort is the 2007 heist film The Take) for assembling a group of actors, not stars. From Josh Lucas's state prosecutor to John Leguizamo's bail bondsman, they're all willing to service the story, rather than their own egos. There are other pleasures, too, from the aptly nervy camerawork to the urban soundtrack (Gang Starr, Erik B & Rakim).

Of course, the film skirts dangerously with genre clichés, while you could also argue that Furman's film isn't anything original. But there's something to be said for an intelligent dialogue-driven thriller in an age when spectacle rules cinema. With a plot as watertight as one of Haller's defence statements, if you're looking for a superior slice of entertainment, this comes guilty as charged.