Watch These Legal Thrillers or Be Held in Contempt of Court
Grab a gavel, a briefcase, and get to work!
Court is now in session. Although they have largely faded away from the multiplex in recent years, it's always an ideal time to escape into the twist-filled, monologue-packed world of a legal thriller. Though ethically compromised lawyers have mostly retreated to the small screen, where shows like Billions and The Good Fight carry on the legal thriller tradition, there's no shortage of great legal thrillers to revisit. At the very least, it's cheaper than law school.
Before you raise your objections, let's get some qualifications out of the way. For the purposes of this list, we're mostly thinking about the thrillers or thriller-adjacent ripped-from-the-headlines titles—meaning, we've left off a number of classic courtroom dramas, and skews towards the '90s and the present. (No disrespect to Witness for the Prosecution, Anatomy of A Murder, 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, or a number of other legal classics.) Think John Grisham and scenes where Tom Cruise beats up Wilford Brimley with a briefcase.
A Few Good Men (1992)
It's easy to boil down A Few Good Men, directed by Rob Reiner, to Jack Nicholson yelling, "You can't handle the truth!" but it's similarly easy to forget what a disturbing and tense film about the cultish cronyism of the Marines it is. There are a lot of moving parts to A Few Good Men, but it centers around the murder of bullied Marine William Santiago (Michael DeLorenzo), and the two mismatched lawyers, JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) and Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), assigned to defend his accused killers, two fellow soldiers. That puts them up against Nicholson's sinister Colonel Jessup. Despite being Aaron Sorkin's debut film as a writer, it's still some of his best writing, savvy and snappy, ultimately getting to the root of an American institution.
The Client (1994)
In 1994, John Grisham was king. After the box-office success of movie adaptations of his novels The Firm and The Pelican Brief in 1993, plus his run on the best-seller list, the legal thriller writer looked untouchable. His string of hits continued with The Client, which tells the rather simple story of a plucky young kid (Brad Renfro) who witnesses a suicide and the resourceful lawyer (Susan Sarandon) who helps him take on the system. (Tommy Lee Jones, a little off his game here, gets less to do as the ego-driven District Attorney.) Like in The Firm, the mob elements of The Client are ludicrous, packed with cartoonish villains and eye-rolling legal maneuvers, and the suspense sequences towards the end flirt with outright tedium, but director Joel Schumacher, who also helmed the 1996 adaptation of Grisham's A Time to Kill, bathes the movie in an over-the-top swampy atmosphere. The dynamic between Renfro and Sarandon makes this one of the more touching entries in the genre.
Dark Waters (2019)
The dangerous, mass-produced chemicals that Mark Ruffalo's dogged attorney Robert Bilott fights against are found in seemingly boring objects like non-stick pots and pans. There's a startling mundanity to the real-life horrors explored in Dark Waters, the ripped-from-the-headlines tale of a lawyer waging a decade-spanning legal war against DuPont, one of the most powerful corporations in the world. The kitchen table, where families gather to break bread and discuss their day, becomes the scene of the crime. To tell the often dispiriting story, which mostly plays out in Ohio and West Virginia, director Todd Haynes emphasizes the domestic and social aspects of the legal thriller, shooting a stiff corporate holiday party and a conversation outside a Benihana with All the President's Men levels of tension and his own sense of melodrama.
The Devil's Advocate (1997)
Let's get this out of the way: The Devil's Advocate is a wild movie. It's alternately a slow burn courtroom drama with a murder mystery and a supernatural horror plot. It's also very hard not to spoil because the reveal is part of its glorious kookiness. Keanu Reeves plays a cocky young Florida lawyer named Kevin Lomax who can't and won't lose a case, getting even the most heinous criminals acquitted. He's invited to come to New York and help a hotshot law firm with jury selection and is ultimately recruited by the company run by Al Pacino's mysterious John Milton. The title really says everything you need to know about who this "John Milton" is and soon enough some very creepy stuff starts to happen to Kevin and his wife (Charlize Theron). But the thing you might forget about The Devil's Advocate is how much of a law movie it is in between all the Pacino yelling.
Erin Brockovich (2000)
A legal drama doesn't necessarily need to be centered on courtroom scenes to be satisfying. Civil lawsuits exist, too, and Erin Brockovich is a crackling thriller that's about the law and lawyers, as well as a character study and a takedown of corporate America. Steven Soderbergh's film is probably best remembered for Julia Roberts' Oscar-winning performance and her brash, foul-mouthed, and altogether lovable take on the eponymous real-life legal assistant who uncovers environmental negligence and cover-up perpetrated by California's major electric and gas provider. It's also a sun-soaked exploration of how companies knowingly poison people and do nothing about it, and the kind of bravura and doggedness it takes to take them down.
The Firm (1993)
As you can tell from the rest of this list, the '90s were a golden era of sleek, movie-star-packed legal thrillers, and they don't get much better than director Sydney Pollack's The Firm. The first John Grisham adaptation has a little bit of everything—tax paperwork, sneering mobsters, and Gary Busey, for starters—but there's one reason to watch this movie: the weirdness of Tom Cruise. He does a backflip in this movie. What else do you need to know?
Jagged Edge (1985)
A lesser-known early work from screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, the mastermind behind Basic Instinct and Showgirls, Jagged Edge offers an alluring mix of violent mayhem, ill-advised romance, and legal intrigue. Glenn Close plays Teddy Barnes, a defense attorney recruited to defend a wealthy newspaper publisher (Jeff Bridges) accused of killing his wife. Soon enough, they're riding horses, preparing for trial, and carrying on their own secret affair. Set primarily in the wealthy homes and spacious offices of San Francisco's Reagan-era elite, the movie has a lushness that sets it apart from many of the legal thrillers of the '90s, which often played out in the sweltering Southern cities of Grisham's novels.
The pinnacle of Oliver Stone's hyper-referential, galaxy-brain paranoid style, this Kevin Costner-led epic, which examines the JFK assassination through the lens of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, has been dinged over the years for alleged leaps in logic and perceived lapses in journalistic judgment. As an air-tight argument, you might not find the film's web of connections between the CIA, the mafia, the FBI, and the military terribly convincing. But as a frenzied meditation on American indignation, a recurring theme in Stone's work, and a locked-in character study of persistence, one of the key aspects of any good legal thriller, the movie simply works. Plus, it inspired a classic Seinfeld plot line.
The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)
Before 2012's Magic Mike, his Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club, and 2014's True Detective kicked what came to be known as "the McConaissance" into high gear, the Dazed and Confused star was already finding entertaining ways to playfully upend his laidback persona. The Lincoln Lawyer, an adaptation of a long-running series of novels by Bosch author Michael Connelly, is a fairly predictable, occasionally clunky legal thriller that's elevated by McConaughey's judge-coaxing charisma and bailiff-influencing charm. Whether he's chatting with his chauffeur (Laurence Mason), flirting with his ex-wife (Marisa Tomei), or squaring off against his manipulative client (a pleasingly loathsome Ryan Phillippe), McConaughey's Mick Haller is the type of slightly slimy hero you can't help but root for. Plus, like the '90s thrillers it's clearly inspired by, The Lincoln Lawyer has a stacked supporting cast (Bryan Cranston! William H. Macy! Michael Peña! Josh Lucas! John Leguizamo! Shea Whigham!) that helps sell all the plot's ridiculous twists.
The late Chadwick Boseman was the 2010s' biopic baron, portraying Jackie Robinson (42), James Brown (Get on Up), and Thurgood Marshall in the span of just four years. He brings a different physicality to each role, turning Marshall into a lightning bolt of a performance. The movie chronicles a case from the future Supreme Court justice's early career, when he was a NAACP lawyer defending a Black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) falsely accused of rape by his white employer (Kate Hudson). It's one of those adult dramas we now think of as "old-fashioned," but that's no strike against it: Despite some simplistic characterizations, Marshall is a compelling courtroom saga bolstered by Boseman's star-worthy turn.
Michael Clayton (2007)
George Clooney made a career out of playing gray knights, and his work as the title character in this icy New York thriller might be the pinnacle of his work. Clayton is a super-cynical, debt-ravaged "fixer" stuck doing damage control amid a massive class-action lawsuit. (Think Olivia Pope from Scandal, but somehow more intense.) He also plays poker, drives cars that explode, and does his best impression of Shiva, God of Death. Tony Gilroy's legal drama, which scored seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, is fun in that way complex conspiracy yarns can be, and it has a handful of memorable exchanges to boot—wait until you see the final confrontation with Tilda Swinton.
The Pelican Brief (1993)
Compared to the other Grisham adaptations on this list, The Pelican Brief has an ambitious scope, incorporating Supreme Court Justice assassinations, a scheming president looking to reshape the court, and an environmental conspiracy involving an evil oil tycoon. It's also completely bizarre—Julia Roberts plays a law student who writes a paper with a theory about the assassinations that falls into the wrong hands—but the glossy execution, with a brightly lit and oddly soft-spoken paranoid style courtesy of All the President's Men director Alan J. Pakula, makes it compelling even in its many dull stretches. At 141 minutes, it's so long that Roberts doesn't even meet Denzel Washington's intrepid reporter character in-person until more than an hour into the story. When they finally do connect, the movie springs to life.
Presumed Innocent (1990)
Always carrying the cultural baggage of Han Solo and Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford is likable enough to get away with playing characters with a touch of sleaze. This adaptation of lawyer-turned-novelist Scott Turrow's 1987 best-selling debut casts Ford, hair cropped close to his head, as a married prosecutor investigating the murder of a colleague who he was having an affair with. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, who also helmed The Pelican Brief, with a sharp script co-written by Dog Day Afternoon screenwriter Frank Pierson and shadow-strewn imagery by The Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis, Presumed Innocent is a winning example of impeccable '70s movie craft applied to a '90s studio star vehicle. (The score from John Williams is also top-notch.) Less bombastic than the decade's later legal thrillers, the movie explores darker psychological terrain than you might expect and doesn't let up.
Primal Fear (1996)
Based on the 1993 William Diehl novel of the same name, this classic thriller has it all: murder, a possibly innocent man on trial, dissociative identity disorder, and a driven defense attorney (Richard Gere) who's fighting for justice for his client. Aaron Stampler, a stuttering and shy former altar boy played by Edward Norton, is the character at the heart of the film—did he or didn't he kill the Archbishop who sexually abused him as a teenager? The twists, turns, and evil that come to light stand up to the test of time, and the performances always merit a re-watch.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)
Roman J. Israel, Esq., director Dan Gilroy's followup to his 2014 breakthrough Nightcrawler, is a character sketch with all the squiggly lines left in. The film, which came and went in theaters in 2017 with little fanfare, stars Denzel Washington as the cranky, old-school lawyer of the title. His garish suits, vintage afro, and trusty Walkman distinguish him as a man-out-of-time, a Rip Van Winkle of the Civil Rights movement caught up in a modern-day legal thriller. When the brilliant but stodgy Israel finds himself working at a slick corporate law firm run by Colin Farrell, he's forced to answer a tough question: Will he stay true to his ideals or sell out? Gilroy's script is as earnest as it is wobbly, careening between thoughtful grace notes and ludicrous action beats. This clearly wants to be one of those movies that makes you say, "They don't make 'em like this anymore," but it's often far loopier than many of the '70s New Hollywood movies it's emulating. They never made them like this—and probably won't again anytime soon.