Sydney Pollack’s 1993 silver screen adaptation of John Grisham’s novel, The Firm, proves to be an intriguing legal thriller. The film’s strong character development, complex, mysterious story, and strong technical aspects, specifically cinematography and music, result in The Firm being an impressive, though long, movie. Luckily, its strengths counterbalance the movie’s running time.
The Firm’s story centers on Mitch McDeere, a recent Harvard Law School graduate who accepts a job at a Memphis law firm. During the hiring process, the firm makes it abundantly clear that they are interested in McDeere as they even add a new car to sweeten the deal. However, once McDeere and his wife Abby move to Tennessee and learn more about the litigious organization, conspicuous events unfold that raise suspicions that the firm may be engaging in nefarious activity. McDeere learns that within a decade’s time, four of the firm’s forty-one attorneys have mysteriously died. This revelation results in McDeere being faced with a potentially life-altering choice, one that would affect not only himself, but Abby as well.
The film has pretty good pacing, but runs long. Thankfully, the overall experience is enjoyable and intriguing. The set-up showing McDeere interview for several positions before “the firm,” is appreciated as it makes the development feel organic. The way in which the red flags are raised regarding the firm activity feeds into the mystery of the movie. These hooks are effective at grabbing and holding the audience’s attention.
The Firm’s most significant tonal motifs are being rich or simply feeling rich and the stark difference between these two realities. During a conversation with his brother, McDeere provides an observation that succinctly captures the essence of the film. He admits, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I went to Harvard, you went to jail and we both ended up surrounded by crooks?”
Other elements consist of corruption, legal intrigue, and being caught up in situations where the details are ostensibly too good to be true. There definitely are some twists in the movie, but it does have some components that are predictable. However, all of the tonal flavors mix well with The Firm’s underlying legal nature.
In terms of performances, The Firm’s actors do not disappoint. Tom Cruise is clearly the principal in his portrayal of Mitch McDeere. Cruise’s depiction of McDeere’s naïveté regarding the hiring process and accepting job offers is well done and convincing. Once McDeere joins the firm, his transmogrification – both physically and mentally – from a relatively poor graduate student to high-roller is noticeable. This allows for great character development and realistic reactions when he learns there may be sinister behavior at the firm.
Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Abby McDeere is well acted. Tripplehorn powerfully conveys Abby’s emotional ebb and flow of throughout the ordeal. Viewers will most likely empathize with Abby regarding McDeere’s change in character.
There was one sequence, however, that was stilted and odd. Shortly after McDeere starts working at the firm, Abby becomes agitated because her husband spends most of his time working and not at home. She should have known that associates at prestigious law firms work grueling hours, especially since her husband attended Harvard Law School. Though minor, this was a big moment of discontinuity in the movie.
Gene Hackman’s Avery Tolar, McDeere’s mentor at the firm, is expertly acted by Hackman. Tolar, as well as other members in the firm, namely Hal Holbrook’s Oliver Lambert, are seemingly clean-cut individuals, but they hide something more ominous under their façades. Hackman’s depiction of this, coupled with his unnerving demeanor, fuels the movie’s mystery.
The movie boasts strong technical aspects as John Seale’s cinematography is superb. Heavy use of close-ups aptly capture the characters’ tension. Space, particularly prison bars and a chain link fence, is expertly utilized. Both are transparent, but clearly separate the characters on either side. It was nice that the camera shows the obtrusion and was not always placed on the inside with the characters. Mirror imaging, symmetry, a short dolly zoom, and the use of foreground and lighting nicely accentuate certain compositions, though some shots depicted Abby with an odd and noticeable halo effect. Nice establishing and second unit shots set the stage for the film’s scenes.
Dave Grusin’s music helps add another layer to the film’s shadowy leitmotif. The main theme is a piano composition that consists of piercing trebles and striking bass. In effect, this adds a layer of dimension to the movie’s underlying tension. Other songs feature piano riffs that are reflective of the groovy, luxurious lifestyle within the firm.
Sydney Pollack’s direction of this film is commendable. Though it runs a bit long, the lessons evident in the movie, combined with the alluring narrative and brilliant character development, make The Firm a strong candidate if you are seeking a legal drama or thriller. The smaller nuances and details of the characters and narrative speak to Pollack’s ability to efficaciously convey a mystery on the big screen. Further, The Firm received two Academy Award nominations for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Best Music, Original Score.
In the end, The Firm is a very strong legal thriller that is sure to entertain viewers. The serpentine story, strong acting, and impressive technical elements all speak to the film’s great, well-rounded final package. You will likely find yourself thinking about this movie after long after your initial screening.
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Production: Davis Entertainment; Mirage Enterprises; Paramount Pictures; Scott Rudin Productions
Director: Sydney Pollack
Producer: John Davis; Sydney Pollack; Scott Rudin
Screenwriter: John Grisham (book); David Rabe (screenplay); Robert Towne (screenplay); David Rayfiel (screenplay)
Director of Photography: John Seale
Editor: Fredric Steinkamp; William Steinkamp
Art Direction: John Willett
Music: Dave Grusin
Costume Design: Ruth Myers
Budget: ca. $42,000,000
Release Date: June 30, 1993 (USA)
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Copyright Holder: Paramount Pictures Corporation
Cast: Tom Cruise; Jeanne Tripplehorn; Gene Hackman; Hal Holbrook; Terry Kinney; Wilford Brimley; Ed Harris; Holly Hunter; David Strathairn; Gary Busey; Steven Hill
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Rating: R; Descriptors: Language and some violence.
Running Time: 2 hours and 34 minutes (154 mins.)