It has become a snob sport to dump on John Grisham, the small-town Mississippi lawyer whose career switch to writing legal thrillers started a gusher of best sellers (A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Client and The Chamber). Grisham is hardly a lofty literary figuh of the South, but falling short of Faulkner doesn’t reduce him to a quick read, quickly forgotten. His gift as a writer is for energizing and humanizing the intricacies of the justice system. He puts it this way: “You throw an innocent person in there, and get ’em caught up in a conspiracy, and you get ’em out.”
Grisham’s law on method is characteristically modest. So why does Hollywood infect his yarns with the virus of prestige? Maybe it’s the high cost of screen rights (The Chamber went for $3.75 million) that makes filmmakers get all dutiful and dull. Director Sydney Pollack sapped the fun out of The Firm by treating lawyer Tom Cruise as Faust in Memphis. And Alan Pakula (All the President’s Men) directed The Pelican Brief as if law student Julia Roberts and reporter Denzel Washington were Woodward and Bernstein. It’s pulp vitality that draws us to Grisham, but the movies haven’t caught on. Until now.
The Client is the best and certainly the liveliest, tensest and most emotionally involving film yet of a Grisham novel. Director Joel Schumacher (Falling Down) gives The Client the snap and accessibility of a great B movie, which is precisely what the material demands. There’s a lull in the middle — there always is in Grisham — but the director swiftly regains his footing. Schumacher means to keep us riveted, and he does.
The opening is a classic grabber. Eleven-year-old Mark Sway, played by newcomer Brad Renfro, leaves his trailer-park home in Memphis to sneak a smoke in the woods with his little brother, Ricky (David Speck). Instead, the boys run into a fat, bearded, booze-guzzling mob lawyer, Romey Clifford (Walter Olkewicz making an indelible impression in a small role). Romey has driven into the woods to kill himself. Before firing a gun into his own mouth, Romey threatens and beats Mark; he also tells him the secret burial place of a U.S. senator murdered by his client Barry “the Blade” Muldanno (Anthony LaPaglia). Traumatized by witnessing Romey’s suicide, Ricky is hospitalized in a coma unable to speak to the police, the press or his waitress mother, Dianne (Mary-Louise Parker). Mark can talk, but if he does, he and his family will be mob targets. He needs a lawyer fast.
Desperation leads him to Reggie Love (Susan Sarandon), a family attorney in over her head with the Mafia and the media circus. Mark doesn’t hold with women lawyers. “How much you cost?” he asks. “How much you got?” she counters. He’s won over by her sass, her knowledge of Led Zeppelin and her handling of superslick U.S. attorney Roy Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones).
Sarandon, with those huge, challenging eyes that radiate fierce intelligence and wit, gives a spellbinding performance; she lets us see that life has bruised Reggie without robbing her of strength or compassion. Jones is electrifying in a comic and canny portrait of ambition. Behind the press-hogging vanity and calls for his pancake No. 17, Roy is nobody’s fool. Don’t buy the bull that The Client suffers without the star power of a Cruise or a Roberts. Sarandon and Jones are superb actors who can bring sexual heat to an argument about legal procedures. Their scenes crackle with energy unimagined in the script by Akiva Goldsman and Robert Getchell. “Tread carefully, Cher,” says Roy. Shaking inside, Reggie nonetheless proves Roy’s match.
In the title role, Renfro is saddled with expositional dialogue that would choke a more experienced actor. But he’s expert at revealing the fragility of Mark’s bravado. His adultsounding rages are imitations of his mother, a vulnerable child herself as poignantly played by Parker. Mark saw his father abuse his mother; Reggie, a reformed alcoholic, watched her unforgiving husband take away her kids. Beleaguered lawyer and client share a bond that gives the film a touching gravity rare in thrillers.
Even when the scare tactics are familiar, Schumacher, cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts and editor Robert Brown prove chillingly expert at making things go bump in the night. The Client is a high-voltage charge of suspense, action and humor. Better yet, it brings out reserves of feeling in the characters in ways that capture the heartfelt spirit of the novel. For once in movies, Grisham is well served. Ditto the audience.