In one of the most surprising comebacks of the 21st Century, Matthew McConaughey returned to serious acting with “the McConaissance.” McConaughey had shown signs of his promising range back in the 1990s with films like A Time To Kill and Lone Star, but after the turn of the century, he almost exclusively started appearing in romantic comedies. There is merit in a great rom-com, but McConaughey certainly wasn’t picking any of those. Ghosts of Girlfriend’s Past, How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, and Fool’s Gold are about as bad as the genre can get.
However, McConaughey was able to turn things around by picking interesting projects from auteur filmmakers. He worked with William Friedkin with Killer Joe, Steven Soerbergh with Magic Mike, Jeff Nichols with Mud, Christopher Nolan with Interstellar, and Cary Fukunagua with True Detective. His run of success was confirmed in early 2014 when he took home the Academy Award for Best Actor for his stirring performance as the activist Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. “The McConaissance” was real, and suddenly the former star of garbage like Tiptoes was the most popular actor in Hollywood again.
While McConaughey’s comeback is largely associated with this run of projects between 2012 and 2014, there was another important role that helped him make his transition. In 2011, McConaughey starred in the adaptation of Michael Connelly’s legal thriller The Lincoln Lawyer. The film was a surprise hit, and McConaughey’s charismatic performance as the untraditional lawyer Mickey Haller managed to please both fans of the novel and a broader audience. Director Brad Furman isn’t quite Scorsese or Friedkin, and The Lincoln Lawyer is a relatively standard mid budget crowd pleaser. However, McConaughey was able to utilize his inherent magnetism and elevate a film that wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without him.
Mickey Haller isn’t a standard lawyer by any stretch of the imagination. Haller operates out of the back of his car, and often comes to the defense of unusual criminals who have no hope of winning their case through traditional means. Haller’s reputation draws in an idiosyncratic group of characters. This allowed McConaughey to utilize his sense of humor; it was the material in his earlier films that was to blame, not McConaughey’s comedic acting abilities. Haller completely acknowledges that he’s riding a fine line between justice and exploitation.
Haller isn’t taken seriously by the Los Angeles legal community. He’s seen as a fringe player who profits off of rambunctious cases that generate humorous headlines the next day. It’s precisely why McConaughey was perfect for the part. Both Haller and McConaughey were underdogs at this point in their respective careers. They had been written off, and it gave them both something to prove. Audiences weren’t expecting someone like McConaughey to convincingly play a whip smart attorney.
Yet, it is someone like Haller that’s called in for a case that no widely-respected lawyer is willing to touch. Haller is contacted by the Roulet family to defend their son Louis (Ryan Phillipe), who has been accused of severely beating the sex worker Regina Campo (Margarita Levieva). After just a few conversations, Haller is convinced that Louis is guilty. A brief skimming of the evidence with his investigator Frank Levin (William H. Macy) confirms his suspicions. However, this is a case that Haller can’t let go. McConaughey showed his rebel attitude; he’s unable to let crimes go unpunished, even if he’s not involved in the case. He also knows that Louis is unlikely to be tried fairly otherwise, as his wealthy family has the resources to influence the court system.
After looking into the case further and talking empathetically with Regina, Haller begins to notice similarities with another file that had come across his desk. Haller remains haunted by his failure to defend Jesus Martinez (Michael Peña), as Martinez wound up with a life sentence despite claiming that he was innocent. During the trial, Haller had advised him to plead guilty so he wouldn’t be executed. Haller notices similarities between the two cases, and suspects that Louis is responsible for both the murder he’s accused of and the one Martinez was convicted of. The legal terminology is fast and elaborate, but McConaughey makes it work. It’s easy to understand Haller’s intentions, regardless of whether you’ve caught up with all the legal references he’s citing.
What McConaughey brings out is Haller’s unflinching commitment to justice. This heroic quality is what distinguishes The Lincoln Lawyer from other mainstream legal thrillers (of which there are so few nowadays anyway). Yes, Haller takes advantage of the unusual set of circumstances in front of him, but he’s helpless to let crime go unpunished. He wants to defend people he genuinely deserves a voice, regardless of what their background is. He seeks both personal and professional satisfaction by fighting against the system; he gets to defend those in need and embarrass everyone that had doubted him at the same time. It’s the same thing McConaughey did with his career.
In recent years, film fans have mourned the death of mid budget films made for adults, and something like The Lincoln Lawyer would feel like a breath of fresh air now. It also seems as if there are very few “movie stars” out there anymore who can sell a film based on their name alone. The Lincoln Lawyer is the type of project that we need more of, and thankfully McConaughey’s dramatic turn came at the right time. It was just the type of surprise comeback that managed to win out in the end, just like Haller.
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