The Lincoln Lawyer appears at first glance to be nothing but another courtroom thriller, a good way to pass a couple hours on an airplane (where I watched it). There’s certainly lots of slick courtroom maneuvering, drama, and melodrama, as one would expect. But at second glance, it becomes clear that there are things this movie has to say about justice and good and evil: not a dramatic, grandiose claim of any kind, but more of a cynical commentary on the difficulty of navigating the maze of the justice system and of separating good from evil.
The protagonist, Mick Haller (Mathew McConaughey), is the epitome of what it means to be a man; he is not a hero, willing to nobly risk his life for good, or a villain, so convinced he is right that he will use his great power for evil and destruction. He is simply a human, with his weaknesses, which are not tragic character flaws but simple ones: occasional drunkenness, arguments with his ex-wife, and the amorality, not immorality, that can be so characteristic of humanity. But he’s also a father, a lover, a friend. A suave but sometimes sleazy lawyer, he has charisma both off and on the courtroom floor, where he makes his cases through posturing, bribes, and favors. He’s working the broken justice system to his advantage because it’s broken. But perhaps it’s broken because everyone works it like he does?
But then, the unforeseen happens – Mick gets set up by one of his clients. He takes on the case of his career defending playboy Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), who is accused of assaulting a prostitute. Suddenly, Mick realizes that his client killed another prostitute years ago; one for whose death another of his clients was imprisoned, but saved by Mick from the death penalty. Roulet admits this, yet Mick is bound by lawyer-client confidentiality rules, and his agreement (and reputation) to defend his client. Suddenly, he’s in the position he always puts others in. Lying, cheating, and tricking his way to verdicts of “not guilty,” Mick’s suddenly the one who’s used, lied to, and cheated. The scenario may be built on outlandish plot twists, but it doesn’t reek of escapism. There’s something very gritty and grounding about Mick’s pangs of conscience and the bouts of drunkenness that ensue. Of course, he’s not the hero who, in a burst of altruism, rushes to set wrongs right. It’s only as he realizes that his family and friends are in danger that he believes he’s come face to face with evil, in the incarnation of Roulet. It’s only then that he begins to care about justice. But even then, he doesn’t attempt to fix the system; he uses his usual clever machinations to bring to his client the justice he deserves.
It’s not a spoiler to say that there’s no happy ending; evil isn’t defeated and good doesn’t triumph. Not really. Mick may have succeeded in bringing justice in this particular instance, and he may drive away into the sunset in his Lincoln to the beat of a catchy song, but he leaves behind a chilly message about humanity. The system’s still broken; the guilty are punished through an individual taking it upon himself to become the judge, and he only does so when his own interests become involved. What human being truly cares about justice when a court case’s outcome has no personal impact? Next time out will there be another Mick, driven on by pangs of conscience, or will the Roulet get away?