With Communism a nonstarter, the only acceptable movie villains are aliens, comets, hyperthyroid lizards, and attorneys. Oh, and Gary Oldman. Lawyers are used only if Oldman?s busy and a human is needed.
Yet, an older archetype lives in the films made from John Grisham novels. Descended from “To Kill a Mockingbird”‘s Atticus Finch, the Good Lawyer looks like Matt Damon in Francis Ford Coppola?s “The Rainmaker,” traversing a cynical moral landscape but still able to find his ideals for the summation. Damon plays Rudy Baylor, a Memphis attorney who shines when he tackles an insurance company for a client dying from leukemia (Johnny Whitworth), but his knightly instincts mix with personal demons when he falls for an abused wife (Claire Danes).
Sadly, “Rainmaker” is made of pure Hollywood plastic. Damon is a cipher to whom things happen, and once the fat cat opposing counsel (Jon Voight) appears, any suspense as to who will win the courtroom showdown becomes moot. Worse, “Rainmaker” holds the audience in contempt by spelling out plot points with loony obviousness. That this white elephant comes from the director of “The Godfather” is most painful.
Fortunately, Atom Egoyan?s “The Sweet Hereafter,” a deeply humane drama about the aftermath of a fatal school bus crash, indicates that good filmmaking lives on. At its heart is Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), the sad-eyed lawyer who tries to help the bereaved parents ?direct their rage.? Some are willing to sue. Others recognize there is little to be done in the face of a callous God, indifferent fate, or random road conditions. “Hereafter” sides with the non-litigious, but it resists demonizing Stephens’ anti-hero. His inability to see that people might not want revenge is punishment enough.
The most piercing moment comes as Stephens tells of rushing his own child to the hospital after she’d been stung by spiders and having to be ready to perform a tracheotomy if she stopped breathing. As we see the knife hovering at the toddler’s throat; he tells flatly of being ?prepared to go all the way.? It may be the truest, most forgiving, and most damning lawyer story yet. And it makes “The Rainmaker” look like a shyster. “Rainmaker”: C- “Hereafter”: A