Lincoln Lawyer (2011)
Short Review: Matthew McConaughey is in the Legal Thrillers Hall of Fame, thanks to A Time to Kill, so right off the bat this 2011 Michael Connelly adaptation gets a crack at the top 10. The Lincoln Lawyer is a sleek neo-noir, an update on the Ross Macdonald broken family crime flick, but with a top dollar lawyer in the place of the private detective. This one is elevated by its supporting cast, which includes Ryan Phillippe, Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, Bryan Cranston, and the one and only John Leguizamo. Come for the McConaughey, stay for the Leguizamo—just like you learned studying for the bar exam.
A Civil Action (1998)
Short Review: To the extent A Civil Action is remembered, it’s mostly as part of the John Travolta renaissance. Travolta sure does chew up a lot of scenery, too. This is a big important legal movie, of the 1990s variety. But beneath the righteous shouting and legal peacocking is a thoughtful movie written by Steven Zaillian, which takes on the murky, morally ambiguous areas of the class action legal system, where clients and their own attorneys often have differing interests, and the system conspires to screw the little guy. The movie was criticized at the time for its lack of a satisfying ending. Certainly it’s not a perfectly told story, but you have to admire a movie that’s willing to take a different course than just about every other legal drama out there.
The Insider (1999)
Short Review: Michael Mann’s follow-up to the epic (some might argue, over the top, even grotesque and/or wonderful) Heat was a legal thriller based on a Vanity Fair article based on a 60 Minutes segment based on some hardcore corporate chicanery. That’s a solid lineage, and the film sneaks in as a legal thriller thanks to the legal concept at the center of the action, which involves (not to get too spoiler-y) an attempt to use a deposition as a run-around on attorney-client privilege. This was, at heart, a Big Tobacco movie: from an era in the 90s when it looked like massive civil actions and brave whistleblowers working in coordination with semi-righteous journalists might actually fix some of our social ills. They…sort of did. The Insider has just the right quotient of legal insight and cynicism so that it doesn’t feel too dated. Corporate conspiracies are, it turns out, evergreen.
The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) / (2015)
Short Review: The 2009 Argentine/Spanish production, which had a limited but celebrated run in US theaters, would rank several notches higher if the lukewarm 2015 American remake hadn’t come along to drag it down. The original is a powerful look at a team of investigators who become obsessed with a missing woman and soon find themselves wading into a territory of deep national shame—an examination of Argentina’s Disappeared. The American version stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, and Julia Roberts and involves a mosque. Probably it’s not fair to stick these two together, since really they’re quite different movies, but for the sake of this arbitrary exercise, and because the 2015 version has elbowed the original out of most US streaming services, they’re stuck with each other. Final reminder, though: go watch the Oscar winner, starring Ricardo Darín and Soledad Villamil.
Short Review: If you were unaware that Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling faced off in a Hitchcockian neo-noir involving a perfect crime, a hotshot prosecutor working one last case before cashing in with a private firm, and some truly enviable interior design concepts, consider this your wakeup call. Fracture isn’t about, say, a perfectly plotted script, or redeemable characters, or defensible attitudes. It’s about two actors—an old lion and a young one—facing off in an enclosed space and getting angrier and angrier with each other, and also manipulating the law. Fracture is widely available on streaming services and you deserve it.
Runaway Jury (2003)
Short Review: Underrated in the Grisham-adaptation-canon, possibly due to the ridiculous title, Runaway Jury is one of the more enjoyable legal thrillers you’ll come across, with the added benefit of being regularly available on streaming services. John Cusack and Rachel Weisz star as a pair of jury hustlers, infiltrating the panel in the year’s highest profile gun case, then offering to sell the verdict to either Dustin Hoffman for the plaintiff or Gene Hackman for the defense. Now, in my experience, jury consultants are more often akin to focus group managers, rather than the NSA-level operation Hackman is running, but it sure is fun to watch two great actors square off in the hotbox of a New Orleans courtroom. Extra props for the on-location shooting and the frequent, integral use of streetcars. This one rightfully has a place next to the 90s classics.
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Short Review: When Erin Brockovich came out in 2000, this movie had it all: a defining performance from one of the era’s most magnetic actresses, a dynamite script based on a true story, and a director working at the height of his powers. Soderbergh can make dry paint entertaining, but with Brockovich he had real material. For those who need a refresher, Erin loses her own personal injury case, goes to work for her old attorney, and finds herself in the middle of a massive contaminated water / cancer class action case. Her story fills in an important piece of the American legal system—the confidence, sometimes misguided but what the hell, that a passionate layman can roll up his or her sleeves and solve a complicated legal case through sheer moxie. (A few states remain where laymen can practice law. God bless ‘em.) Brockovich feels like something of a timepiece, if only because so many of the people involved were massive and defining stars of a now almost bygone Hollywood era. But it holds up to re-watching now and serves as an effective antidote to some of the decade’s more buttoned-up legal dramas.
The Social Network (2010)
Short Review: Finally, a movie about and structured around depositions. Also, the birth of social media, the century’s new class of corporate titans, the era of technology, America, the world, the fate of humankind. But mostly depositions. Aaron Sorkin’s favorite dramatic legal device is put to great dramatic use in his 2010 magnum opus, directed by David Fincher, scored by Trent Reznor, and best remembered for any of a dozen lines delivered by Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and even Justin Timberlake. A deposition is a peculiar thing—a marathon session in which attorneys try out various strategies for locking a party into an inconvenient or downright calamitous version of events. Depositions alternate between between periods of tedium, aggressive verbal duels, and more tedium. Even the most gifted minds can crack under the pressure. They can be incredibly revealing events. In Sorkin’s version, Zuckerberg is unable to hide the disdain with which he holds most of the human race. The Social Network may not take place in the courtroom, but this is a legal thriller of the highest order. And don’t worry, it looks like Facebook is probably going to end up in a federal courtroom one of these days soon.
Michael Clayton (2007)
Short Review: Tony Gilroy’s 2007 neo-noir legal thriller tops this list for several reasons, which we will enumerate because you made it this far into the article: (1) a script that’s both tightly packed and wildly ambitious, with a keen eye for the individual details and the big ideas teeming just under the surface; (2) the cast, which features George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, and Tom Wilkinson all working at the height of their powers; (3) the artful photography, awash in dusk and dawn grays; (4) the embrace of ambiguity and moral gray areas, the kind Hollywood is rarely comfortable trafficking in; (4) the sheer entertainment value; (5) that scene with the horses; (6) that scene with the baguettes; and (7) that scene in the taxi at the very end. Also, the legal world is captured perfectly. Michael is a “fixer” at a white-shoe firm in New York, but he doesn’t have any super powers. He just has a few connections with the NYPD and the DA. The firm’s office, the midnight closing sessions, the Midwestern motel deposition preps, even the cars the characters driven—they’re all pitch perfect. The film is damn enjoyable, but it’s also an ordeal, and like any good legal ordeal, it leaves everyone feeling just a little sullied. As the man said, “give me fifty dollars worth.”