The criminal justice system is confusing. Recognizing that every person is innocent until proven guilty, the process to discover the truth is far from perfect. As egos of prosecutors meet the machinations of defense lawyers the focus can easily shift to other objectives than justice. But underneath this morass are real people trying to live with themselves and with one another. That is the story behind Brad Furman’s film “The Lincoln Lawyer.”
Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) has paid the price to be a defense lawyer. Having been married to prosecutor Maggie McPherson (Marisa Tomei), their mutual attraction cannot override their opposition in the legal system. This becomes obvious and personal when Haller takes on a wealthy young client who is accused of battery and attempted rape and brings his violent evil into their personal lives.
The defendant is Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe). An upstanding member of society, Haller is sure of his innocence and strives to protect him against prosecution. The son of a famous defense lawyer, Haller has a deep desire to be able to know who is innocent and keep them from prison. But, as Roulet’s story unravels and other facts come to light, Haller enters into a whole different place. Explaining to Maggie that he used to fear that he would not recognize innocence, he now fears evil itself.
This is the quandary that we all face. Magnified in the criminal justice system, and a popular theme on both the large and small screens, we fear both innocence and evil. Not as obvious as we would hope, these films and crime shows take us down paths in which everyone is not what they seem, both in their innocence and their sins. The tension that creates a good story also exposes the stress of our souls.
The absence of any spiritual community, and particularly a Christian one, exaggerates the difficulty the people in this story face. The importance of understanding the nature of sin and the source of innocence is a vital assistance in navigating life in this world. When all we have is the criminal justice system, where the lines become easily blurred and innocent people are imprisoned while evil ones escape prosecution, then our fears will only increase.
Although the title refers to the rolling office that Haller inhabits, “The Lincoln Lawyer” also brings to mind a president who is known for taking a moral stand during a season in American history when our nation was torn apart by the evil of slavery. That President Lincoln paid a personal price is true, but that our nation changed for the better is indisputable.
That is what makes this film troubling. Haller beats the system and protects his family. But in the end Haller is still playing the game and defending a person he knows is dealing drugs. If that is a requirement of the system then something needs to change both for defense lawyers and for all of us.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. After beating the system to protect his family, Haller goes on to defend a person he knows is guilty of selling drugs. What would you do if you were him?
2. If you have ever been a part or an observer of a criminal justice trial, what was your experience? Did you see justice? Were your fears, about putting away an innocent person or letting a guilty person free, allayed?
3. If you were responsible to come up with a better way to discern who is innocent and who is guilty than our present system, what would you suggest?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com.