The Firm (1993)

Directed by Sydney Pollack


The opening 15 or so minutes of The Firm lead you to think that this will be a horror film.  Young hotshot law student Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) has almost literally got it all.  He is in the top 5% of his graduating class at Harvard Law, he’s married to the woman he loves and every law firm interviews him for a position, though it’s made clear that they need him more than he needs them.  There is a montage of these interviews to start the film, and in one, the interviewer notices Mitch checking his watch and asks if there’s somewhere he needs to be.  Mitch explains that he’s simply on his lunch break and needs to get back to work.  See, Mitch is a hard worker, and even though he has these lucrative offers flying in, he still feels a great sense of responsibility to his current, less noteworthy job as a waiter at a college bar.

Then Mitch is finally woo’d by a law firm down in Memphis called Bendini, Lambert & Locke.  They want him badly, and their offer seems too good to be true.  They go 20% over the next highest offer and take care of every last one of his needs.  It’s basically the lottery.  He’s given a house, a Mercedes, a mentor and his college debt is paid off by his work.  Mitch only notices that something is a little off about this when his wife, Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) points out how strange everyone is.  First of all, everyone calls the Bendini, Lambert & Locke law firm, ‘The Firm.’  They might as well already call it The Cult.

Another lawyer wife tells Abby how the lawyers and their wives are encouraged to have children, and the wives are not forbidden to work.  First of all, creepy, and second, you’d think the other woman would know not to refer to this dynamic with such wording.  The idea is that everyone is kind of in on the secret that the firm deals with the Chicago mafia, and that’s why they can throw around this money to practically force new lawyers to join.  It’s also why they go above and beyond and act so strangely.  So, when the other wife says the women are “not forbidden to work,” she doesn’t acknowledge how strange this sounds, even when Abby points it out.  To the other wife, this is perfectly normal.  This suggests either that this wife is not yet in on the firm’s secret but is accepting of this dynamic, meaning that she comes from a southern household where these outdated gender roles are taken as a given (I know that’s not just a southern mindset, but it is more southern than northern, and there is a gap placed between the two within this movie), or second, that she’s already in on the secret in which case you’d think she would be more careful with how she phrases what she says to someone she knows is on the outside looking in.

Anyways, the point of encouraging the lawyers to have families is so that they settle down.  Then, once the lawyer has made partner, the law firm tells them about their dealings with the mafia, locking them in so that even if they wanted out, well… their locked in.  The inciting incident is when two lawyers die mysteriously in a diving accident in the Grand Caymans.  What’s kind of funny is that Mitch and Abby only really need to be told that it was a diving accident, but word gets around that it was a diving accident caused by an explosion.  Okay, since we know this is a thriller, we know this death is suspicious, but an explosion really pushes it over the top.  Imagine for a second that I told you a mutual friend of ours died over the weekend.  You ask how? and I say, ‘oh ‘they died in their sleep.   There was an explosion.’  The implication clearly is that it wasn’t the ‘dying in their sleep’ that’s important.  It’s the damned explosion.

I’m already shitting on this movie like I don’t like it, and I thought I did enjoy it.  It’s so over the top at times, but here’s where I should get back into my thoughts on The Firm as a possible horror film.  This is really a thriller and not a horror film, but the beginning, as I touched on, is so over the top amazing that you know the bottom will drop out at any moment.  In a horror film, I’d say that you reveal information slowly.  Horror stories often place a focus on the mystery.  The protagonist learns as he or she fights the evil thrown against them.  In a thriller you might have that same mystery.  The Firm, though, offers you all the mysterious information pretty early on.  We learn that the firm probably killed the two lawyers and that there were two other lawyers killed by the firm 10 years earlier.  A detective, Wayne Tarrance (Ed Harris), tells this to Mitch, identifying him as a way inside the firm to take them down.  Wayne gives out all the information that we’ve been wondering about, and he does it pretty early in the film.

These four deceased lawyers all tried to leave the firm, and they were killed because of this.  The secrecy surrounding the firm is due to their handling of the Chicago mafia, and they don’t want this word to get out.  This reveal felt underwhelming to me.  The firm is so wildly extravagant and seemingly awesome, that I expected the fallout to be much worse.

I think the film itself knows that this reveal isn’t enough to make an impact dramatically so that’s why it was made clear so early in the film.  In a horror, this revelation would come at the end of act 2.

The Firm isn’t about why the firm is so mysterious but rather what this means for Mitch.  He’s stuck, and the FBI wants him to rat on his peers.  His choice is to break every oath he’s sworn to uphold as a lawyer or to become an accomplice with the firm’s activities and go to jail for a longtime.  The journey becomes about Mitch taking back control of his life.

From here the story gets incredibly complicated, and I had trouble keeping up.  Part of that is because this movie is over two and a half hours long which I think is rarely okay.  By that I mean that you better be damned sure your movie is worth watching for that long.  There’s nothing wrong with a short movie if it’s made well.

This story is about a guy who’s nothing more than a caged animal, and at times I really felt the stress and torment he was going through.  Other times, though, I was just a little bored.  Mitch’s wife leaves him when she discovers he slept with another woman (a set up by the firm, but that doesn’t mean Mitch had to go through with it), but she eventually returns and finds herself in the Grand Caymans, seducing Gene Hackman as part of a plan to steal documents for Mitch’s case as he takes down the firm on his own terms.

I guess a movie might lose me and stretch its own believability when characters demonstrate a capability to do things that you just can’t believe they can do.  So the first example is Abby becoming a spy in that sequence in the Grand Caymans.  It’s like in other movies or tv shows when a character is suddenly a really good actor.  I get it, these are all actors, so they can all act, but you’ve never established that this woman, a middle school teacher, can act.  She shows some signs of vulnerability, but I never bought her own determination.  It felt completely out of the blue.

There is another instance when the firm, established as this incredibly dangerous entity, proves itself to be kind of bumbling.  Two armed men who work for the firm (one of them is albino Severus Snape) chase after Mitch, and one ends up shooting the other before Mitch kills him, it looks like.  While this is happening, Mitch suspends himself on one of the pipes above, using insane core strength to hold himself up.  They did set this up, sort of, early on when we see Mitch inexplicably do cartwheels down a street, but come on… it’s easy to throw a scene like that in.  There is absolutely nothing that would suggest that Mitch is a world class gymnast.  And how the hell would he have time while at Harvard Law to be such a great gymnast?  WHEN DOES HE TRAIN?  WHEN DOES HE SLEEP?

That scene only exists so that later we see him do flips and whatnot in this scene, and suddenly we’re supposed to say, ‘right, that makes sense, he can do that.’  It’s so absurd, but absurd isn’t always bad.

Here, though, I’m not sure.  I can’t get a sense of how absurd this film wanted to be versus how absurd it simply ended up being.  Absurd movies don’t take themselves seriously enough to last over two and a half hours.

We’re meant to root for Mitch, but he’s not the greatest guy.  He cheats on his wife, and he gets into fights with her about growing up rich versus poor.  He also demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge of what drives his wife.  He tells her he’s working these long hours so he can give her the life she deserves, but she says she wants none of that.  How could he be this distant from her?

We only root for Mitch because the bad guys are so bad.  And believe me, I hated the firm’s ‘head of security,’ played by Wilford Brimley.  He was highly disturbing, and I wanted Mitch to beat the living crap out of him.  So yeah, I rooted for Mitch but only because Wilford was worse.  Ideally you’d root for your hero because you like him or her, no matter who or what they are up against.

The main problem with Mitch, I think, is that we never really understand what drives him.  I think this lack of insight into his character is shown by two heavy-handed conversations that are kind of easily forgettable, one at the beginning of the film and one at the end.  In the first conversation, he sits down with his mentor, Avery Tolar (played by Gene Hackman), and through their conversation we learn that Mitch is an idealist.  What I really didn’t like about this moment is that we’re never shown his idealism, we’re just told to believe in his idealism.  Everything else we’ve seen of Mitch shows that he’s a little cocky, handsome, restless and smitten by material things.  He’s being woo’d and frankly it’s kind of insufferable to watch someone just be given things.  Kirsten Dunst, playing Marie Antoinette, is given a bunch of things in, you guessed it, Marie Antoinette but her point of view is as an outsider (similar to Mitch), and she thinks all these material goods are incredibly odd and uncomfortable.  Her point of view is something we can identify with, possibly because we want the person who receives everything to understand that they shouldn’t receive everything.  That’s a working theory, at least.

The other Mitch-centric conversation is at the end, after the plot has been tied up, with Wayne Tarrance.  Mitch didn’t give the FBI the mafia, like they wanted, but he did find evidence of the firm over-billing its clients.  Mitch knows that the number of instances of this crime adds up to over 1,000 hours of prison time and $2.5 million in fines.  He convicts the firm without betraying the oaths he swore to protect.  Wayne asks him why he did it, and Mitch says he wanted to get his own life back, and the only way was to get rid of the danger the firm represents as well as make sure he doesn’t get disbarred.  I think having a character ask your protagonist “why did you do it” is incredibly dumb.  We should know why he did it because by the end of the film we understand the character.  And this doesn’t show that Mitch is idealistic, as it’s meant to show.  It just tells us that he wants his life back, which is great, and to get his life back, he needs to be a lawyer meaning he can’t break his confidentiality agreement with his client.  This is Mitch protecting himself, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t spin it as idealism.

So Mitch gets everything he wants, and then he tells Avery (and us) that he’s an idealist.  It’s easy to forget this because we never really see his idealism.  Everything he does that’s ‘good’ later on is merely to save himself.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but this is a story about a guy trying to climb out of a hole, and we’re told to believe that if he weren’t in that hole, he’d be building homes for homeless people or something.  We don’t need to know what he would do once he gets out of the hole.  The story is about him getting out of the hole.

So this idea of Mitch’s idealism strikes me as an effort by the screenwriter to make us like Mitch, and I think it fails.  I think I’ve already written that I didn’t like Mitch and yet I rooted for him anyway.  I don’t think I need to like him, but the story would have been more engaging.  The most intense and interesting scenes were, to me, anytime Mitch had to fight off one of the bad guys whom it’s so easy to hate, and I really think I just hated those characters because of the way they looked.  That seems horrible, but it’s a great job of casting.  I didn’t like Wilford Brimley’s character, but there’s something about him that’s just irritating.  And the other guy, an assassin with long blond hair (aka albino Snape), is similarly hard to bear.

I’m been writing for too long now about The Firm.  The point is that the characters weren’t interesting, so the story depends heavily on the plot.  You have to care what’s going to happen next, but oftentimes the plot was weighed down in what felt like unimportant (but were probably important) details.  Maybe not everyone was as bored as I was, but… I can only say I was bored.

Avery, along with Holly Hunter’s Tammy Hemphill, turned out to be the most watchable characters in the movie.  Avery actually wasn’t even that great until his turn in the end, in which he gains back some of the audience’s sympathies.  As Abby tells Mitch, he was corrupt, but he was tortured.  The story should have shown more of Avery’s tortured mindset as he struggled with something that you would understand struggling with.

I just liked Tammy because I really like Holly Hunter.  The casting in this movie was pretty great, even if there were a couple very bland characters, like Mitch’s inmate brother who doesn’t have any real characteristics.  He’s just an inmate who wants to get out, and that’s all there is to his story.

To backtrack for a moment, it’s often easy to believe a film when they tell you something about a character simply because the film has the final word on what goes on in the film.  So when we’re told that Mitch is an idealist, we believe it because no one says he isn’t.  But he’s not, so the film lies.  It’s like getting all of your news from one source.  The film wants you to believe that Mitch is perfect because… I don’t know, it’s a big budget Tom Cruise film?  It’s okay for Mitch to be an asshole because his circumstances are so dire that we want to see how he gets out of it, I mean, ideally we want to see how he gets out of it.

There are moments in movies and shows when one character says something, and for a moment you believe them until another character sees right through and says that it’s all bullshit.  And I like those moments, because it’s like someone asking you a leading question to see if you’ll be smart enough to look past it and answer truthfully, or something like that.  When a character calls another character out on their bullshit, it usually seems to me like a demonstration of a writer who has fully thought through their story.  You should be able to see multiple angles of every action, decision, mindset, etc.  The Firm is stuck with an uninteresting character in an intriguing but underwhelming plot.  The plot is so convoluted that I think the characters suffer as a result because their first priority is to fit into the plot like a puzzle piece.  Then they are given characteristics that are meant to seem intriguing but really just stretch far enough so as to fit into the plot and go no further.  Think of a large stack of cubes that form a pyramid.  Each cube is necessary to the entire structure, and each cube represents a character.  You put down “cube” first, before you know what goes in that cube, and one day you’ve finished the plot!  Then you say, ‘well I need a character to fill that cube’ so you begin designing a character, perhaps saying, “he’s a young hotshot lawyer who looks like Tom Cruise,” but that character is only detailed enough to fir that cube.  Ultimately, no matter their athleticism, supposed idealism, etc. they’re still just a square.

Another Sydney Pollack film, Three Days of the Condor (1975) has a similarly complex plot with escalating danger, but the protagonist, played by Robert Redford, is given time to breath and become a well-developed character.  Within ten minutes we know enough about the protagonist to like him.  We know, for example, that he’s smart, rides a bike and is often late.  That’s not a whole lot, but it’s enough for us to see him as three dimensional and as someone we’d like to follow around for two hours.



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