Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) is a slick, sleazy lawyer whose office is the back of his Lincoln. In the courtroom he has a reputation for getting clients who’ve committed heinous crimes out of jail, which is the reason his wife (Marisa Tomei) has left him. Now, a seemingly open and shut case involving a rich kid (Ryan Phillippe) accused of assaulting a prostitute has landed in Haller’s lap and looks to land Haller publicity and a huge paycheck. Of course, things aren’t that simple and doubts about his client’s innocence cause Haller to play sleuth and, ultimately, question the moral implications of his profession.
After a decade of starring in lazy romantic comedies and tossing aside his dramatic talent (similar to the way Burt Reynolds ruined his credibility as a once-promising actor), here is McConaughey’s return to solid dramatic ground. Years of shirtless turns in stinkers like Fool’s Gold and Surfer Dude and reports of nude bongo playing have overshadowed his terrific, breakout starring turn in A Time to Kill. It’s startling to be reminded how good McConaughey is. And, I’m happy to report, his much-discussed abs make only a quick cameo appearance, rather than their usual co-starring role.
Instead, McConaughey shares the screen with some terrific actors. Tomei adds needed punch to an underdeveloped subplot about Haller’s home life, William H. Macy is reliably excellent as Haller’s right hand man, Michael Pena scorches the screen during his two scenes as an unjustly incarcerated prisoner and everyone from John Leguizamo to former Shawshank warden Bob Gunton shine in tiny but pivotal roles.
Great courtroom dramas make the audience feel like they’re watching the story from the jury box, and that’s something this movie pulls off. The case and the story in general go in jolting directions, augmented by stylishly shot flashback sequences. The camera doesn’t linger too much on the crimes in question, but the film has a focus on violence against women that feels nearly gratuitous—the brief descriptions are enough to make the point but instead we get jarring reenactments of sexual battery.
Normally, multiple endings are a sign of a filmmaker’s indecision, but here the shocking, layered climaxes cleverly wrap up loose ends and finish the story with some needed finesse. This is the second film made from a Michael Connelly novel, after the uneven Clint Eastwood thriller Blood Work. Haller is a great role for McConaughey and I wouldn’t be opposed to sequels.
Note to McConaughey: keep playing smart but flawed attorneys—and keep your shirt on.