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The Rainmaker

by Judith Grant, University of Southern California (December 1997)

[Editor's note: The following commentary reveals some plot details.  Readers who have not seen the film may want to bookmark this site and return to read this commentary after they have seen the film.]

I have been particularly interested in the John Grisham industry, and have written elsewhere that films made from his novels tend to portray lawyers as superheroes. I have come to conclude, however, that this is not necessarily a bad thing. The mood in Hollywood, and presumably, the United States, is decidedly anti-lawyer. More precisely, the mood is anti-rule of law. As a writer on this web site has argued, this is symbolized quite well (if heavy-handedly) in the film, The Devil’s Advocate. Al Pacino as devil cum attorney is quite entertaining despite the disturbing perspective the film has about the role of the defense attorney in the American judicial system. Contending, incorrectly, that it is the business of defense attorneys to determine guilt or innocence beforehand on their own, and then to defend clients (or not) based solely on their own imperfect assessments, subverts a basic tenet of post-Enlightenment democratic societies. That almost quaint notion that the accused should be able to face his accuser and defend himself in front of his peers has somehow been rendered in film and television as the subversion of justice. Justice, in turn, is implicitly conceptualized as something one can know in advance of legal procedures which merely, it would seem, muddy the waters.

As I have already hinted, Rainmaker is, indeed, in the Grisham mode. But it resists the kind of uncomplicated cartoonish good lawyer we found in his earliest work, The Firm. For the subject of Rainmaker is arguably the single most unpopular kind of law and lawyering: the ambulance chaser and the compensatory damages lawsuit. Grisham asks us to entertain the possibility that while lawyers may be crooked and greedy, not all are. And, further, that while some lawsuits may be frivolous and contrived, others really are about justice; even those seeking compensatory damages. In fact, the central lawsuit in the filmthat of a family suing an insurance company for fraudulently failing to honor a medical policy and thus resulting in the death of a young manis exactly the kind of David and Goliath case that I wish was motivating so many of my students to go on and study law. Yes, Danny DeVito plays the role of a loser, shyster ambulance-chaser who can't even pass the bar. But he is in practice, as it turns out, a rather competent trial attorney. The real hero, of course, is the winsome Matt Damon whose commitment to his clients and their righteous plights enables him to win a huge settlement (50 million dollars) for the mother of the dead boy. And though she will never collect any of it as the insurance company immediately declares bankruptcy, we, the audience, are left feeling that justice has been done and the good guys have won. More importantly, and I think this is Grisham's genius (such as it is); the lawyers accomplish this feat by following the law.

But wait! Our young hero decides to leave the legal profession anyway. He fears that he may cross that line and become merely another lawyer joke. And this ending is one of two very strange and un-Grisham-like moments in this film: The kid lawyer seems to end up agreeing with the The Devil's Advocate crowd that he should only defend good people. We know this when he pointedly asks the insurance company's lead counsel, when did you sell out? And we know this because he leaves the profession presumably fearing (and his fears have some merit, to be sure) that he won't always be defending the good against evil. In fact, he may all too often be hired as the devil's advocate. The second weird un-Grisham like moment is even weirder principally because its implications are virtually ignored in the film. The fact is that our little hero has actually helped to murder his girlfriend's abusive husband, and then left the scene, and lied to the police about both his involvement and her culpability. What we are left with is the notion that his active participation in murder is sanctionable since the husband was a monster. His defending monstrous insurance companies is then somehow likened to an attorney who defends a wife-beater.

Click here for commentaryWebitor Rob Waring comments on The Rainmaker.

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