This is a really good movie: outstanding story, direction, acting, cinematography. I will tell you later what’s wrong with it.
The story is about a really spunky kid. He’s 11-year-old Mark Sway, and his family is trailer trash, living in Memphis, Tennessee. He’s The Client. It’s from Warner Brothers in 1994, and it features Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones, and a very remarkable Brad Renfro as Mark. The story is based on the book of the same name by John Grisham. I once had a VHS copy of the movie, and images are screen shots. Technical information is from Wikipedia.
The core of the plot is that Mark and his little brother Ricky (David Speck) sneak away from their trailer home to smoke cigarettes Mark has stolen from his mother (unmarried). He has been doing that a lot. So as not to get caught they go to their usual place in the woods on the banks of the Mississippi River. It’s a place that’s safe, because nobody ever goes there. Until today.
A big black car drives up and a middle-aged lawyer parks and begins to arrange his suicide. He takes a prepared garden hose from the trunk and stuffs one end into the car’s exhaust pipe. He runs the other end through the rear window, closes up tight, and starts the engine. There would be no plot, no movie, if spunky Mark didn’t get the idea to foil the suicide. He pulls the hose out and retreats to the woods to watch. Bad idea. The driver, Jerome “Romey” Clifford (Walter Olkewicz) discovers the subterfuge and replaces the hose and starts all over again. Mark attempts to repeat his business with the hose, but Clifford grabs him and forces him into the car. He has a pistol. And a bottle of whiskey. And a secret. He tells the secret to Mark. Then he shoots himself with the pistol.
Mark phones 911 about the suicide, but neglects the part about Clifford’s secret. It’s a secret that can get a kid killed. He’s now the kid who knows too much. The police don’t buy the story. Ricky freaks out on witnessing the shooting and goes catatonic. Mark, Ricky, their mother Dianne (Mary-Louise Parker), and the police all head down to St. Peter’s hospital where Ricky is diagnosed and where Mark is pressured to reveal why he has been lying about what happened. The cops want to know the secret.
That’s where attorney at law Reggie Love (Sarandon) comes in. She takes Mark’s dollar as a retainer and agrees to represent his interests.
Meanwhile some New Orleans mobsters are not happy. Clifford was the attorney for Barry “The Blade” Muldanno (Anthony LaPaglia). Bad boy Barry has murdered United States Senator from Louisiana Boyd Boynette and has hidden the body. He has let slip the location of the body to the late Mr. Clifford. It’s possible Mr. Clifford has blabbed to Mark Sway before exiting stage right. Barry’s uncle, mob boss Johnny Sulari (Ron Dean), is especially not amused. His screw-up nephew is bringing unnecessary heat on the family, and Uncle Johnny kindly requests that Barry take care of the situation.
Prosecuting Barry Muldanno for the murder of Senator Boyette is “Reverend” Roy Foltrigg (Jones), United States District Attorney for Southern Louisiana. Reverend Roy is not overly bright, but he is overly ambitious, and he gives definition to the term “showboat.” He needs a body to secure a conviction on Mr. Muldanno. A conviction will help vault Mr. Foltrigg into the vacancy left by the late Senator Boyette.
Foltrigg, the police, and the FBI overplay their hand and attempt to bully young Mark Sway into telling what he knows. Bad mistake. Reggie has equipped Mark with a wire before sending him into the conference with the big guys. Exit Mark from the meeting room, enter Reggie with the tape. Pleasantries evaporate when Reggie confronts the feds with evidence of their malfeasance.
The remainder of the plot is up to Grisham’s high standards. Grisham is a lawyer, so there is a whole lot of legal maneuvering, but also suspenseful episodes as the mobsters attempt to silence young Mark, and the feds do their stuff corralling them. In the end spunky Mark escapes police custody and leads Reggie to the place where Muldanno has stashed the Senator’s body, in attorney Clifford’s boathouse, in a hole, under the boat.
They barely beat the hoods to the body in a dramatic scene at the boathouse, there’s an armed confrontation, and the hoods have to exit without the body. Uncle Johnny is very displeased, and he suggests Barry “The Blade” take a ride with two of Uncle Johnny’s enforcers.
Reggie exchanges the location of the body for a deal to get the Sway family into the federal witness program. Mark has a last look at Reggie before he boards the jet that will take the family to a place unknown. “Reverend” Foltrigg holds a press conference at which he dramatically announces the discovery of the body.
And a lot of the rest is bullshit.
There’s a bunch of dumb stuff that a lawyer should never miss. Here is some.
The cop who takes Mark to the hospital suspects that Mark is lying. He suspects that Mark was in the car with Clifford prior to his death. He needs a sample of Mark’s fingerprints. He brings Mark a can of Sprite. After Mark parks the can on a ledge in the hospital the cop lightly picks it up and carries it off in an evidence bag.
Reggie makes a big deal about this—taking fingerprints without the mother’s permission. That’s likely a weak legal issue. If the cop had not given the soda can to Mark there would be no legal issue. This is not something introduced by script writers Akiva Goldsman and Robert Getchell. These Hollywood writers actually cleaned up a mess left by lawyer Grisham. In the book Grisham has Mark purchasing his own soda and then tossing the can into the trash. Once a piece of evidence hits a trash container, any lawyer will tell you it’s fair game.
The really big pile of manure sitting stage center is the business about the witness protection program. Somebody who knows more about this program than I do is invited to set me straight, but my impression is that it’s supposed to be used for witnesses. Mark is not a witness. He did not witness any crime. He will never testify in court. He just happens to know where to find the body. He’s like the kid who discovers a body in the river and tells the police. Mark is even less than that. He just received second hand information about the body. The police never needed anybody to tell them where to find the body. If they had found the body on their own that would have been just as useful in court.
Let’s carry this further. Reggie and Mark sneak into the boathouse and put eyeballs on the body. Now Reggie knows where the body is. Negotiating with Foltrigg for the Sway family she tells him she knows where the body is. Now she is in exactly the same position that young Mark Sway has been throughout the bulk of the movie. They don’t need Mark or his family anymore. They have another live person who knows where the body is. And this is not protected client-attorney information. Reggie went to the boathouse and saw the body with her own eyes. Why does “Reverend” Foltrigg continue with putting the family into the witness protection program?
Barry Muldanno is going for a ride with Uncle Johnny’s enforcers. There’s not going to be any trial. Foltrigg can prance and pontificate before the cameras all he wants, but he’s never going to take Muldanno to trial, because they are never going to find Muldanno’s body. See how that works?
The book has an extra load of Grisham legal fireworks and plot devices, but a lot needed to be left on the floor to make a two-hour movie. Read the book. You will especially like the part where Dianne Sway gets fired (missing work) from her sweatshop job at the lamp factory, and Reggie marches into the plant and hands the owner/manager a subpoena. Dianne retains her job and gets paid for her days off. Fun to watch the Sarandon in action.
I have the Kindle edition of the book. Watch for a review coming soon to a blog post near you.