Well, folks, fall has reached its peak seasonal swing. The leaves have shifted from the lush greens to a deciduous melting pot of auburns, oranges and yellows; humidity recedes into memory as the overwhelming musk of the overcast, rainy woodland sweeps into Madison’s concrete jungle; pumpkins, gourds and an infinity of novelty lattes and doughnuts flood the coffee shops and bakeries of State Street, and so much more.
As seasons go, it’s a period of change. That’s what I’d like to focus on today: change, the crucial ingredient in the recipe for growth. It happens all around us, constantly, unwaveringly; in friendships, in follies and no less, in film.
Where would characterization or plot development be, after all, were it not for this evolution of the diegesis? Where would we be, as appreciators of storytelling rhetoric, were it not for some cathartic “a-ha!” moment that vindicates the last two hours of staring at a kaleidoscopic screen of swirling colors?
Therefore, it’s completely fitting to have the tides of fall ease into action in one of my all-time favorite films, Sydney Pollack’s “The Firm.” Released in 1993, this adaptation finds itself among the typical flavors of author John Grisham’s oeuvre: with stories like “The Firm,” “The Pelican Brief,” “The Rainmaker” and so on, Grisham practically homogenized the legal-thriller genre. There’s a lot to say about his categorization alone, but “The Firm” is meaty enough, so let’s unpack its transitional themes.
To start, it’s an insanely impressive cast: Ed Harris portrays a shady government hardhead, Gene Hackman enters as the awkwardly suave Avery Tolar, Gary Busey and Holly Hunter team up as the peculiar, if not totally eccentric P.I. duo, and a fine bow is wrapped around the rose-petaled marriage of Jeanne Tripplehorn and Tom Cruise, at least for a period of time. Wait, Tom Cruise? Yes, Tom Cruise, who performs so passionately, his name bears thrice repeating.
Cruise headlines as the promising, soon-to-be-graduate Mitch McDeere, a man who rose from the Kentuckian lower-class into the top three of his Harvard Law class; not top three percent, mind you. With his wife Abby (Tripplehorn), the bright-eyed couple accepts a position at Bendini, Lambert and Locke, perhaps the most exclusive and secretive taxation firm in the country — in Memphis, at least. Recruits at the firm start at $80,000 salaries, and it only skyrockets from there; partners, millions per year, a company-leased BMW, a fully-furnished home, vacations in Grand Cayman, waived student fees and an insurmountably prestigious position at the coveted office. To the McDeeres, two broke 20-somethings fresh out of school, it’s perfect; perhaps too perfect?
When two associates end up dead in a Caribbean boating explosion, McDeere starts to pry and uncover the peculiar history of deaths in the firm. What were these men trying to unveil? Were the deaths truly accidents, or is a sinister force at work? With the help of FBI agent Tarrance and P.I. Eddie Lomax, McDeere discovers a damning plot hatched by his own employers, silently spinning cogs under the guiseful glamor of this financial utopia.
Only one question remains: does McDeere maintain his loyalty to the firm who fulfills his lifestyle and career dreams, or does he betray the moral foundations of lawyership, risk disbarment and face the very possible reality of the end of Mitch McDeere as he knows it? Unfortunately, he never had much of a choice.
Yes, it’s one thing to start throwing extra layers onto that t-shirt and shorts combo you’ve been sporting for the last five months, but it’s incomparable to having to upend your future and the promises of a wealthy and successful career. Despite its fictional narrative, “The Firm” is rooted in the idea of change that we see on a constant basis. There’s something deeply human about the unraveling of McDeere’s boy scout-ish innocence, as elements of deceit, infidelity and conspiracy creep into the protagonist’s life, one discolored, autumnal leaf at a time.
This weaving and dynamic web of corruption spins ripples throughout the lives of the cast; death and despondency plague various characters, and the residual moral weight bears down on the rest. While Pollack has no trouble painting a clear divide between forces of good and evil, it never feels like a stale battle of obvious virtues. I would posit that Ed Harris’ Agent Tarrance is the lone exception, who undergoes a rollercoaster of moralistic shifts (and done with deliberation, especially in the modern climate of ambiguous political values, where it remains painfully relevant).
Then, of course, there’s Abby McDeere: Mitch’s partner, advisor, and in some ways, victim. Through each repeated viewing, I find myself aligning with Abby’s coping methods more and more; she, the Western Kentuckian schoolteacher who doesn’t ask for the conspiracy, doesn’t seek the truth behind a deadly scheme and never anticipated interjection between our country’s legal parameters and the criminal underbelly adjacent to it. Nevertheless, she adapts, persists and overcomes these obstacles with supreme grace. It would serve you to pay attention to her seemingly insignificant role in Mitch’s actions, because like so many moments in this multifaceted masquerade, things often don’t appear as they seem.
Alright, so beyond the plot itself, what makes the film so notable? To answer this, I’ll simply turn you to Dave Grusin’s impeccable soundtrack: a flurry of polyphonic piano blues, a fusion between melody and melancholy, foot-tapping Southern swing genres and the obligatory twangy country ballad. Track it down on YouTube, buy a copy of the album, learn the piano if you must, but do not skip out on the jazzy and mysterious vibes of Grusin’s performance.
Most importantly, Pollack adapts from an incredibly strong source text. As I make my way through Grisham’s mass market paperback, his prose tips between the dry sardonicism a la Raymond Chandler and the sexy noir flair of, well, Raymond Chandler. In a way, Grisham mimics this pulpy adventurousness from the mid-20th century, and rightfully so; both forms of writing possess a personal extension, at least in some form of Burkean identification, where we see ourselves plopped into the shoes of these protagonists, who are ultimately likeable in one way or another. The biggest element of these authors, though, is watching characters adapt to a situation they had no say in. Despite these hurdles, they survive and thrive, a mentality I think can truly benefit any of us faced with challenge or duress.
And again, this translates incredibly well to film. Sure, minutiae such as paragraph-long descriptions of McDeere’s facial expressions and Tarrance’s fuming temper aren’t narrated — films are always bound to drop elements from a full-length novel — but what remains is a tonally consistent, jazzed-up thriller that manages to pump excitement and adrenaline-lined tension into the mundanity of legal stationery. A film about studying for the bar isn’t very exciting, after all.
Frankly, there’s not much I can say about “The Firm” without ruining the narrative beats which make it so exciting, memorable and engaging. The cast fills their roles to a capital T beneath a soundtrack fit for a Grammy, and it’s among a plot from one of the better, modern authors of the innovative thriller subgenre. The most I can say is that this film is one worth watching, and then again, and then after reading the book, and repeat. There’s much to digest and decipher; I find myself doing this with every new viewing.
Whether I find a new characterization that I like or not isn’t up to me. That change is inevitable, and until it starts to devalue this wonderful film, I’ll take another sip of my spiced cider and take a day trip to the apple orchard for some Instagram photos.
Christian Memmo is a film columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.