As a lawyer, Mick Haller knows all about the murky nature of the human character. He's seen his share of bad behavior and devious duplicity—lying and cheating to get ahead, to "win" no matter what the cost. He sees it in court, he sees it on the street, he sees it even at home.
Pretty awkward, really, since the dude lives alone.
Mick, who does business out of the back of his classic Lincoln Town Car, is the sort of lawyer who gives lawyers a bad name. He's not picky about who he takes as clients: bikers, drug dealers, rapists … as long as they can pay. He's good at what he does—when his license isn't suspended.
In truth, Mick's greatest fear is defending an innocent man. And he's wondering whether his greatest fear just hired him.
Louis Roulet looks like an overgrown boy scout—certainly not the sort of guy who would beat a prostitute nearly to death. He swears he's innocent: He's been set up, he claims … an easy mark for an ambitious hooker looking to score some of his considerable wealth. The prostitute, he says, must've inflicted those bruises on herself—or had an accomplice do it for her.
Is it possible the guy could be telling the truth? At first Mick thinks so—particularly as evidence begins to corroborate his story. And yet, Louis doesn't appear to be telling the whole truth either. Mick uncovers inconsistencies, half-truths, bizarre connections. He begins to wonder, Is he assisting an innocent man? Or is he helping a serial killer go free?
Mick's methods are as murky as a Louisiana swamp, as gray as the London sky. And he does a whole lot of things wrong. But in his own muddled way, he tries to take the high road. Mick, after all, does what good lawyers should do: He defends his clients with both vigor and creativity. Our judicial system hangs on the idea of due process and effective representation. Cops and district attorneys sometimes loathe Mick as he wheels and deals for lower bonds and shorter jail stints, believing he's helping societal scum get back on the streets. But by law, a defense attorney is supposed to defend his client, innocent or guilty. So the argument can be made that Mick's just doing his job, and without folks who do their job, our sometimes flawed system might break down entirely.
It turns out that Mick's greatest fear isn't actually defending an innocent man. He fears "evil. Pure evil." And he's increasingly convinced that if he does his job like he should, he'll be responsible for allowing it back on the street. During the course of The Lincoln Lawyer, Mick learns that one of his previous clients, a man who hired him years before, was innocent. But because the man was accused of murder and had no defendable case, Mick convinced him to cop a plea and avoid the death penalty—forcing him to admit to a crime he didn't do. So Mick makes a penitent trip to California's San Quentin prison, formulating a plan to clear the man's name.
"Please," he says. "I'm trying to make this right."
Mick and his ex-wife, Maggie, have a daughter that both of them dearly love. "At least we did one thing right, huh?" Mick tells Maggie as he holds his sleeping daughter in his arms.
As mentioned, the victim in this case is a high-end prostitute: We see her wear provocative clothes and hear a great deal about her profession. Descriptive testimony is given by a man who hired her. And as part of a related crime, characters talk about condoms and semen.
Mick and Maggie still have feelings for one another. And after meeting in a bar, the two go back to her place and apparently have sex. (We see them kiss passionately and grab at one another as they disrobe—down to her bra and panties.) The next morning they find themselves in bed with their young daughter sleeping snugly between them. Maggie forces Mick to leave, telling him that their daughter can't wake up with them still in such an intimate environment.
A homosexual couple is involved in Louis' case. (He categorizes their relationship with an offensive slur.) There's a suggestion that Frank, Mick's investigator, is gay. One of Mick's clients is a prostitute, and she jokes about turning tricks for the PTA.
Women wear lingerie and skimpy bikinis. Crude references are made to the male anatomy.
The first time we see Reggie, the prostitute, it's in photographs showing the extent of her facial injuries. Her face is so battered and bloodied that when we meet her after she's recovered, she barely looks like the same person. In flashback, we're shown her version of events—how her assailant broke into her apartment, assaulted her with a knife and beat her severely before she managed to hit the guy over the head with a vodka bottle. The man told her he planned to rape her, kill her and rape her again.
Louis' version of events is less extreme: He walked through the door and was hit with something. When he woke up, he found blood smeared all over his sweater and hand.
A bloody knife shows up in police photos. We hear about another murder, bits of which are shown in flashback and the aftermath of which is documented in explicit photographs. A character is fatally shot in the head and chest. (Police say the victim's dog was shot, too.) Another is killed by a bullet to the gut. Still another is shot in the shoulder. A man is severely beaten by a motorcycle gang. (We see bats and other blunt instruments rain down on the fellow.) Someone smashes a car window.
Veiled threats are made concerning women and children. In court, mention is made of the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl. Several people discuss lethal injection.
Crude or Profane Language
Three f-words and about 20 s-words. The words "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "h‑‑‑" and "fag" all get exercised. Characters misuse God's name a half-dozen times (often pairing it with "d‑‑n"). Jesus' name is abused three times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Though he never shows up to work drunk, Mick exhibits a serious disregard for his health when it comes to alcohol. He drinks beer, wine and whiskey socially, and when he's alone he chugs hard liquor. Rarely does he go anywhere without a small bottle of something. It almost goes without saying that he regularly drinks to excess. And it appears that he drives home drunk.
Maggie's forced to babysit Mick after his binges, driving him home on one occasion, almost literally dragging him into a house on another. She drinks, too, for the record. And she might've been tipsy the night that she and Mick go to bed together. Others drink at bars as well.
This alcohol abuse isn't shown without at least some consequence. Mick's clearly hung over at times, and one morning he "sips" tablets out of an aspirin bottle much like he was sipping booze the night before. But it never seems to impair his ability in court, and the film casts no moral aspersions on his behavior.
As for drugs, there's talk of "farmers," getting high, driving under the influence and getting caught with "50 kilos." A drug-addicted prostitute says one of her clients paid her in cocaine—stuff she still has on her when she picks up another guy, who turns out to be an undercover officer.
A few characters smoke cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin' hard enough. That's what sports fans say when excusing their favorite spitball pitcher or flopping point guard. Defenders call such antics "gamesmanship," and you might call Mick a gamesman—working favors and twisting rules to do what's "best" for his clients. He doesn't as much break the law (in the courtroom, at least) as he creatively bends it.
Mick has his driver, Earl, buy an unmarked gun off the streets, which Mick uses to threaten someone. He uses subterfuge to impress a potential client, "hiring" a fake newsman to record something, then "bribing" said newsman to give him the footage he just taped. He sneaks into a treatment facility under false pretenses, and it appears that he even asks a bunch of ruffians to beat up someone for him. "The hospital, not the morgue," he says, as the assailants continue their beating. He lies to a judge and overcharges clients.
Others lie, cheat, steal, break into houses and fabricate evidence.
"If guilty people have rights, what about innocent people?" Louis says on the stand. "I am innocent!"
Unless, of course, he's not.
The Lincoln Lawyer begins as a taut legal thriller and ends as a misguided mess. But even if everything had been tied up with a neat, coherent bow, the film would be no less problematic—not with all the violence and drinking and lying and cheating and generally bad behavior we must sit through first.
Let me put it this way: If The Lincoln Lawyer was hauled into court and I was asked to sit in the jury box, my guilty/not guilty ballot would be obvious. And I'd have a strong recommendation for sentencing, too.