February 10, 2019

The Client (1994)
Grade: 73/100

Director: Joel Schumacher
Stars: Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Renfro

What it's about. A crime thriller set in the South. Preteenaged boys Brad Renfro and David Speck are witnesses to the suicide of deranged lawyer Walter Olkewicz. Because it is a movie, Olkewicz tells Renfro everything before he dies, including (literally) where the bodies are buried.

Because it is a movie, both the law and the murderous villains soon know that Renfro knows, yet Renfro doesn't talk to the law, led by district attorney Tommy Lee Jones. Instead he hires a lawyer, Susan Sarandon, who also stonewalls Jones, with the unintended result that multiple attempts are made by the killers to add Renfro to their list of victims.

How others will see it. The Client was a blockbuster, and drew selected critical acclaim. Susan Sarandon, in particular, received an unlikely BAFTA Best Actress award, and she was also Oscar-nominated for Best Actress.

Today at imdb.com, the movie has only 53K user votes, which doesn't compare favorably with the 1.57M user votes for another 1994 movie, Forrest Gump. The user rating of 6.7 out of 10 is less than stellar, though it rises to 7.1 among women, who are presumably relieved that a happy ending keeps Renfro alive while redeeming Sarandon and punishing all the bad guys.

How I felt about it. Suspense and conflict are proven tools in a filmmaker's construction kit. Suspense, in particular, is effective; one only needs to see Strangers on a Train (1951) for confirmation. Conflict is generally considered essential as well, and was certainly important in Casablanca (1942), where those ever-awful Nazis had to be thwarted, once again.

The challenge with suspense and conflict, as with any other aspect of cinema, is credibility. The suspense and conflict cannot be bogus. We roll our eyes when, in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Teresa Wright absolutely, positively must get to the library before it closes. And the conflict is overplayed in that movie as well. Wouldn't Joseph Cotten his misogynist opinions to himself while visiting his clever grown niece?

And so it is with The Client. The suspense, for the most part, works, even though we know preteenager Brad Renfro is not going to be die in the car with suicidal Walter Olkewicz in the film's opening minutes, and he's not going to be stabbed in the elevator by the hitman, simply because the audience would revolt and be revolted.

But the conflict can be suspect. Does local cop Will Patton have to be such a jerk? Does Dan Castellaneta the scandal-chasing reporter, or Gill Beale the ambulance-chasing lawyer, have to be so obnoxious? Most people are civil, particularly when children are involved. But, I guess, not in a movie.

We also groan when characters have to demonstate how smart or cool they are. Nobody's favorite Led Zeppelin song is the live verion of "Moby Dick". Nobody apart from a minister should be able to recite the book and verse of an obscure biblical passage.

I am also against the casting of gorgeous college graduate Mary-Louise Parker as the trailer trash mother of two. She camps it up and, as a result, her performance seems inauthentic.

There's also the tame raccoon in the boat house, the boy who reverts to infancy because he saw a dufus shoot himself, and the preposterous odds of the heroes and villains both arriving at the boat house to find the body at the same time. Why on Earth would Sarandon flee with a wanted child on the longshot of finding a body at said boat house?

Given the movie's many problems, the surprise, then, is that it is as good as it is. True, Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones provide bang-up performances. The villains are appropriately creepy and threatening, and the two boys redeem themselves as well, given that their casting appears to have been based on how cute they are.

But the movie does work. Credit goes to the workmanlike but effective screenplay by Akiva Goldsman and Robert Getchell, and perhaps source author John Grisham as well, who knew his credibility was on the line. Given his other films, it is difficult to credit Joel Schumacher, but the bottom line is The Client is good. Ronny Howard did make Apollo 13 (1995), so such things are possible.