My first journalism job out of college was covering the police beat for a mid-sized daily newspaper in Pennsylvania. Part of my routine was to attend arraignments. That’s how I met Esther.
After the accused was read the Miranda warning—“…You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you….” Esther stepped in. Esther was a public defender. Her job was to represent those who could not pay for a lawyer, namely the poor and the disenfranchised. They were also mostly guilty. I often watched her, standing beside a tough-looking defendant, questioning the charge, asking for bail. One time she stood up for a young man who was accused of raping and killing a 90 year-old women. Even the most hardened police officers couldn’t stand the crime scene.
How could she do it? I asked her that once. “Everyone is entitled to a lawyer,” she answered. Of course, I knew that. But still, how could she do it?
Michael Connelly tackles this question head on in his novel, The Lincoln Lawyer. Michael (Mickey) Haller is a defense attorney who represents drug dealers, scam artists, gang members. He is often asked the same question I asked Esther. And his answer is pretty much the same.
Matthew McConaughey takes on the role of Mick Haller in the excellent film adaptation of Connelly’s book. When he is approached by Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a wealthy playboy accused of rape and attempted murder, Haller thinks his fortunes have changed. A paying client who swears he is innocent? A win-win. Yet the old warning plays in his mind, “An innocent client is a lawyer’s worst nightmare.” Typical with a Connelly novel, however, things are never that simple.
Not since A Time to Kill, where he also played a lawyer, has McConaughey found a role worthy of his talents. He is Mick Haller, complete with the attitude and swager, adept at playing the system. His office is his Lincoln, hence his nickname. He cruises through the courtroom as smoothly as he cruises around Los Angeles. He’s thrown off his game, however, when he encounters an adversary that is, Haller observes, “pure evil.” Suddenly his belief system is turned upside down and he is forced to fight for himself and those he loves.
Marisa Tomei plays Haller’s ex-wife, Maggie McPherson, an assistant D.A. who frequently questions Mick’s choice of clients. Tomei just keeps getting better and better. Her Maggie is sexy, tough, and vulnerable. The chemistry between her and McConaughey heats up the screen.
William H. Macy, sporting the long hair he probably grew for his Showtime role in Shameless, is Mick’s loyal investigator, Frank Levin. Other members of the supporting cast include Frances Fisher as Mary Windsor, Roulet’s domineering mother, John Leguizamo, as bail bondsman Val Valenzuela, Josh Lucas as prosecutor Ted Minton, and Katherine Moennig as Gloria, the prostitute/drug user who comes to Haller’s aid.
Perhaps the most effective supporting character is L.A. itself. Cinematographer Lukas Ettlin has captured the grittiness of the city, the parts of Los Angeles that Haller (and Connelly) knows so well. At times the city seems to exist in a dream, with everything slightly out of focus, emphasizing Haller’s confusion as he attempts to extricate himself from a dangerous situation.
Connelly’s novels are page turners, pulling you in and keeping you involved until the final page. The film adaptation manages that as well. You won’t want to take a bathroom break for fear you will miss an important twist or turn. Haller is a recurring character in Connelly’s books. Can we hope for an encore?