February 2021

The Client (1994)

DIRECTOR: Joel Schumacher


Brad Renfro, Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony LaPaglia, Ossie Davis, J.T. Walsh, Bradley Whitford, Anthony Heald, William Sanderson, Kim Coates, Will Patton, Anthony Edwards, Micole Mercurio, William H. Macy, Ron Dean, Walter Olkewicz, David Speck


The Client is a slickly-crafted thriller that is almost- but not quite- saved from its own accelerating plot unlikelihoods by a competent production and capable performances. Based on the novel by Arkansas-born lawyer-turned-writer John Grisham, who seems to churn out legal thrillers destined for movie adaptations every time he sets pen to paper, The Client is more entertaining than the likes of the Denzel Washington-Julia Roberts potboiler The Pelican Brief, albeit not as good as perhaps the best Grisham movie, A Time To Kill, but some of Grisham’s own writing contrivances try their hardest to defeat a level of acting that battles mightily to overcome them.

We begin with an atmospheric, effective scene that arguably develops more tension than anything that comes after. Youngsters Mark (Brad Renfro) and Ricky (David Speck) Sway have wandered into the Tennessee woods to smoke cigarettes, where they have a chance encounter with unhinged, suicidal mafia lawyer Romey (Walter Olkewicz), who spills the beans about where his client, gangster Barry ‘The Blade’ Muldano (Anthony LaPaglia), stashed the body of a missing New Orleans Senator before blowing his brains out, leaving Ricky in virtually comatose shock and Mark in possession of entirely too much information. Suddenly lots of people are interested in what Mark knows, including Barry and preening DA ‘Reverend’ Roy Foltrigg (Tommy Lee Jones), who is aiming straight for the Governor’s mansion and doesn’t intend on letting an eleven-year-old boy get in his way. In over his head, Mark turns to a lawyer named Reggie Love (Susan Sarandon), who accepts his case for a dollar, mostly because she’s had some troubles of her own. Danger, courtroom drama, and digging up bodies ensues.

The Client includes a long list of respectable character actors, and solid acting overcomes some of the script’s contrivances. One of the flaws of the book and the script are that most of the characters are one-dimensional clichés we’ve seen plenty of times before; one of the saving graces of the movie is that they’re filled out with actors who are capable of making them seem more substantial. Newcomer Brad Renfro, a Knoxville, Tennessee native previously only appearing in school productions, brings spunk and backbone, barely covering up frightened vulnerability, although his lack of experience is occasionally apparent. Reggie Love is a stock character we’ve seen before- the sympathetic lawyer with a checkered past (she empathizes with Mark because she lost custody of her own children due to alcohol problems), but Susan Sarandon fills out the part so well that she seems like a distinct individual. She’s believably smart, tough enough to go toe-to-toe with Reverend Roy, but tender enough to sense the boy really does need her help and offer it free of charge. Sarandon’s performance, which was nominated for an Academy Award, is one of those that elevates a stock type to a flesh-and-blood person through sheer force of presence and acting ability. Reverend Roy is even more one-note: the ambitious publicity hound prosecutor who wants to be Governor, and in fact he’s only a notch less of a villain than Barry the Blade and his goons, but because he’s played by Tommy Lee Jones, we don’t quite look at him that way. Jones isn’t working with a meaty enough part for this to be one of his best roles, but he’s reliably fun, firing off one-liners with his trademark gusto. Mark’s mother, struggling with financial responsibilities and the need to stay with her traumatized son, is nicely-played by Mary-Louise Parker. There’s juicy bits of fun from Ossie Davis as a feisty judge who’s not impressed with Reverend Roy, and the ever-creepy (and creepily amusing) Will Patton as a cop determined to wring information out of Mark (he takes entirely too much glee in telling him about the FBI’s kiddie-sized electric chairs). Roy’s team is rounded out by J.T. Walsh, Bradley Whitford, Anthony Heald, and William Sanderson, and there are small roles for William H. Macy as a doctor, Micole Mercurio as Reggie’s mom, and Anthony Edwards as Reggie’s assistant.

While The Client is technically a thriller, it never builds up much suspense, and a major part of the reason for that is that the bad guys aren’t an intimidating bunch. Anthony LaPaglia’s Barry the Blade is a swaggering punk who likes to threateningly wave his switchblade around, but he soon proves more a bumbling buffoon than a deadly killer; as his henchman, Kim Coates is, as usual, just weird. The only mobster who seems like a potentially legitimate threat is Ron Dean as Barry’s Uncle Johnny, but he spends his scant screen time acting exasperated by his nephew’s flashy ineptitude. It’s hard to feel seriously menaced by guys like these; in fact, Will Patton is more frightening than any of them, and even Tommy Lee Jones is more intimidating.

John Grisham takes a lot of jabs from those who say his books (a long series of potboiler legal dramas) are all basically the same. Certainly, while page-turning and entertaining, he’s more the type of book you read to pass the time during a plane ride than the stuff of Shakespeare (I doubt he would disagree with that), but as The Client goes some of his plot twists turn increasingly hard-to-swallow. The central strength of the movie is the relationship between Mark and Reggie. That works, and we believe in the characters. Less convincing is the general ineptitude of Barry and his henchmen, and Mark and Reggie trekking to New Orleans to dig up the body, like something out of The Hardy Boys, resulting in an unlikely encounter with Barry. It’s also worth questioning whether Roy would really hold a press conference announcing the discovery of a missing body before checking to see for himself that it’s really there, and all of the legal talk onscreen might not pass close inspection.

Joel Schumacher gives The Client an atmospheric, almost Southern Gothic look. More effective than the sometimes unintentionally goofy thriller aspect is the high number of amusing moments scattered around. The dialogue is often delightful, with witty exchanges shot back and forth rapid-fire, especially between Reggie and Roy, but with most of the characters getting a good bit or two (when Mark is told accident lawyers only handle injured clients, he replies ‘I’ll just go get hit by a truck and come back then’, and Will Patton’s smarmy cop spins quite the nightmare scenario for boys who obstruct justice, complete with dungeons filled with snakes and roaches and Mark’s brother being sent to an institution for ‘dirt-poor crazy people’).

I really enjoyed the good things about The Client– Susan Sarandon’s excellent performance, Brad Renfro’s feistiness, the general competence of the large cast, the atmospheric direction, and the often cracklingly sharp dialogue- but credibility issues with much of the thriller plotline and especially some third act contrived goofiness bordering on amateurishness is an albatross thrown around the neck of the movie by its novel source that the high degree of professionalism of the movie isn’t quite able to shrug off. The result is a well-acted movie that is highly entertaining but not always convincing.