The Client (1994)

23 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s easy to see why John Grisham writes best-selling novels. His stories may not be particularly new, but his characters are fresh, original, and three-dimensional. It helps to have memorable, compelling characters to follow in any story. This is true of his book “The Client,” which was adapted into a film in 1994. The film—named “The Client”—is just what you’d expect. The story is told in a credible-enough way right before it drifts into improbable territory at the end, in which all of these appealing, three-dimensional characters are thrust beyond their credibility. There are enough things to praise in “The Client” that I’m going to recommend the film for its strengths.

As the movie opens, the eleven-year-old hero Mark Sway and his little brother are playing in the woods near their trailer park in Memphis, Tennessee (Grisham’s usual Southern setting). A black car drives into the woods and the brothers sneak over to see an overweight lawyer get out of the car, stick one end of a garden hose into the exhaust pipe, and another end in a window. Mark realizes what he’s attempting to do and tries to stop him, but is caught by the lawyer (named Jerome “Romey” Clifford) who puts him in the car with him and tells him why he’s committing suicide—he also tells him something he definitely shouldn’t know that involves the Mafia and the whereabouts of a missing dead body.

Mark escapes and the lawyer offs himself. When Mark calls the police and sneaks back to watch them take away the body, he gets caught and is questioned. But this is a smart (though frightened) kid who knows that if he tells them that he was in the car and that Romey told him what he knows, he and his family will be in danger by the mob. He tries to cover his experience by lying, but there’s evidence against him. Also, there’s an FBI agent named Roy Foltrigg, known to the public affectionately as “Reverend Roy” because of his tendency to quote scripture during court. Luckily, the kid is smart enough to know that he needs a lawyer. And he finds one—a tough-as-nails female lawyer named Reggie Love who only costs a dollar for Mark. But can Mark keep his secret?

If the story isn’t enough to suck you in, the characters and their performances from the actors really are. Brad Renfro, as Mark, is a natural actor—there doesn’t seem to be a moment when he’s acting. He’s a tough Southern kid who is very resourceful and wise for his age. Then, there’s Susan Sarandon, who plays Reggie Love. She’s as tough as lawyers come, but has her own demons to conquer—she has a troubled back story. Sarandon is great here. And then, there’s Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Reverend Roy in an over-the-top performance. How can you not like him when he snaps in court? “What hubris is this?! Speak, child, now! Lyin’ lips are an abomination to the Lord!”

The film falls short of being a great thriller and winds up being only good. Oh, there are great sequences in the movie, to be sure. Three, in my opinion, are most memorable. The first one comes right at the beginning, when Mark is stuck in a car with the suicidal lawyer who plans to do away with the kid before himself—there’s great tension with the music and the atmosphere, particularly. Another great sequence is the first meeting of Mark and Reggie—Renfro and Sarandon share a great rapport with each other in almost every scene when they’re together, but this is the strongest, I believe. The third great sequence is the courtroom scene in which Mark must finally decide whether or not to tell what he knows—Ossie Davis is especially good as the judge in this scene, as he cuts through Reverend Roy’s bull. These sequences are spectacularly well-handled and well-shot. But the major flaw with the movie is with the villains—generic mobsters, led by Barry the Blade (Anthony LaPalgia). They want to silence the kid, to kill if necessary…and that’s about it. Nothing exciting or original there; nothing of substance. Also, the final half isn’t believable—it’s just a “Hardy Boys” scenario in which Mark and Reggie are sneaking around the boathouse in New Orleans searching for clues. No points for guessing correctly whom they encounter.

“The Client” is a good film, but not as great as it leads up to be. I wouldn’t place the blame on John Grisham, who wrote the source material. I can possibly place the blame on Akiva Goldman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Getchell. They should’ve known that the final half wouldn’t be as credible as what came before it. Maybe purists of Grisham’s novels would’ve thanked them for making something different. (Then again, I could be wrong.) But I can still go back and rewatch “The Client” and see it for its strengths rather than its flaws.

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