Delicately balancing between the emotional and the physical, The Firm succeeds as entertainment without ever defining itself, determining mood and demeanor on a scene-by-scene basis. Its refusal to create a singular narrative thread could have made for erratic and unfocused work, but it wisely ratchets up the suspense by alternating characters and concepts, drawing as much audience enthusiasm from its contemplative war of words as it generates from the rush of foot chases and narrow escapes.
Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise, at his most cherubic) is our humble hero, a gifted, but grounded, Harvard Law student who slings pub grub in the evening just to keep himself and his beautiful wife financially afloat. As graduation nears, the lucrative offers start pouring in, but McDeere isn’t smitten until he meets with Oliver Lambert (Hal Holbrook), the man behind a quaint Memphis firm that stresses a conservative image and tight-knit, familial work environment.
Mitch is drawn to the normalcy on display at Lambert & Locke, subconsciously striving to distance himself from a childhood spent in a trailer park and the embarrassment surrounding his brother’s manslaughter conviction. His desire to be a member of a family, at least one in the traditional sense, blinds him to the stranglehold the firm’s value system puts on one’s freedom of choice, effectively eliminating employee dissent through the promise of wealth and the facade of community.
Abby McDeere (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Mitch’s spouse, is far more cynical and suspicious of the company’s generosity, sensing the trepidation in co-worker’s responses to her pursuit of a teaching career and reluctance to have children. Her concerns seem unfounded, at least to the wide-eyed Mitch, but they’ll both soon discover that wishes go well beyond gentle insinuation and any insolence is recorded by the Lambert & Locke “security team,” a shadowy group tasked with tracing employee calls and dissuading illicit behavior.
While most employees buy into the groupthink lock, stock and barrel, cavalier veteran Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) is afforded a “few minor rebellions,” revelling in every extramarital affair and liquid lunch purchased on the company dime. Equal parts charmer and sleazeball, Tolar is tasked with ushering Mitch through his bar exam preparation and easing him into the company’s bookkeeping affairs, a process that mostly consists of “business” trips to the firm’s crash pad in the Cayman Islands.
Despite first impressions, Avery doesn’t hide behind his duplicitousness, openly inspiring Mitch to bend the law without breaking it and expounding upon the silver lining of moral turpitude (i.e. wealth, power). Hackman’s nuanced performance makes this veil of confidence alluring, credible enough to convert our most moral Mitch into a master of deception and desperate enough to make the character’s fall from grace in the last reel touching and unusually revelatory.
Days before Mitch’s maiden voyage to the Caribbean, two of his peers mysteriously die on a scuba diving expedition, insinuated to be the handiwork of L&L’s security team and its intimidating chieftain, William Devasher (Wilfred Brimley). Mitch is rattled by the news, but even more disconcerted by the reaction of his peers, who range from paralyzed by fear to borderline catatonic, as if they’re imagining their heads beneath the executioner’s axe.
Unwilling to forgo the dream just yet, Mitch dives headfirst into his work and a parade of domestic excesses (queue the montage), moving his conscience to the back burner for the foreseeable future. The status quo goes on uninterrupted, except for some marital strain, until Mitch’s headspace is thoroughly invaded by F.B.I. agent Wayne Tarrance (Ed Harris), who reveals that Lambert & Locke has lost 4 employees in a rather dubious fashion over the past decade. Tarrance’s evidence is circumstantial and he can’t prove the firm’s involvement, but he makes a compelling case and reignites Mitch’s lingering suspicions.
Intent on extracting information from the unofficial, offshore branch, Mitch tags along with Avery on a jaunt to the Caymans, under the guise of assuaging the concerns of a finicky client. While Avery freshens for dinner and drinks, Mitch rifles through a mountain of on-site files, intrigued by a set of boxes related to Chicago’s Morolto crime family. Realizing he’s stumbled onto something substantial, but not entirely sure what this wealth of information adds up to, Mitch puts a pin in his covert operation until a later date, getting temporarily seduced by Tolar’s business acumen and debaucherous habits. In a moment of weakness, Mitch succumbs to his basest instincts and solicits sex from a wounded girl on the beach, temporarily losing his moral high ground.
Up until this point, Mitch McDeere has been the film’s ethical center, infallible in the eyes of the audience, acting as a symbol of opposition towards the transgressive and immoral. Can his character function after a fault of this magnitude, since he’s now a participant in the pattern of behavior he intended to subvert? The Firm never offers up a definitive answer to this question, but it does enjoy playing with the dichotomy between good and evil wrestling within all men.
Perhaps as an act of penance, Mitch visits his brother, Ray (David Strathairn), in prison, recognizing how their lives run parallel (“both surrounded by crooks”) and his emotional need to make amends. Ray is surprisingly genteel and soft-spoken, never made bitter by Mitch’s resentment and apologetic for how his current legal predicament may affect his brother’s fledgling legal career. After clearing the air, the brothers agree to free themselves from their literal and figurative prisons: Mitch working on Ray’s parole hearing and Ray offering up the assistance of a reliable P.I. buddy.
Mitch enlists Eddie Lomax (Gary Busey), an ex-cellmate of Ray’s, to dig deeper into the recent Cayman scandal, a request rescinded within hours by Devasher’s trigger-happy security team, who seem to be one step ahead of Mitch and unwilling to negotiate with words. Witnessing the surprise office visit and ensuing execution, Lomax’s assistant, Tammy Hemphill (Holly Hunter), flees to Memphis in hopes of linking up with Mitch and devising a convoluted retaliatory plan, one that would both capsize the firm and help Mitch avoid becoming an F.B.I. informant. As if matters weren’t complex enough, Tarrance and team don’t just want Mitch to snitch on his co-workers, they want confidential information concerning his clients, particularly the Morolto clan, which could result in his disbarment and would most certainly lead to an early death. Can Mitch and Tammy pull off the Yojimbo-style con and survive unscathed?
As the plot thickens to a roux, a crucial shift in tone occurs, transplanting the focus from Mitch to his wife, Abby. Since Mitch only needs to function in action sequences from thus on, the film loses its narrative core without an emotional connection, shrewdly avoided by upping another character's participation. Abby takes over as Tammy Hemphill’s co-conspirator, flying to the Caymans to seduce Tolar and steal his secret stash of confidential documents. It’s a brilliant structural move, hindered a bit by the messy gender politics it brings to the surface.
Since Abby has a slight attraction to Avery, she wavers between the goal of her mission and her desire to sleep with him and, in essence, punish Mitch. Though she can’t bring herself to consummate the act of sexual aggression, Mitch still seems offended when he gets wind of her involvement in the operation. “Did I lose you?,” he asks sheepishly, as if to imply that infidelity on her part would be tantamount to a complete dissolution of the marriage. It’s a strange, paternalistic attitude to have if you’ve actually committed adultery, but Mitch’s confrontational line of questioning might not be the film’s point of view, but his own skewed sexual identity. Mitch has already revealed himself to be flawed and the increased female dynamic in the final hour of the film not only adds meat to Tripplehorn and Hunter’s roles, but might act as an admission of Mitch’s guilt.
It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to assume that co-writer Robert Towne, the master scribe behind Chinatown, shaded in these strong women and added some polish to the film noir cliches peppering the film’s mid-section. This richness of character is why the film succeeds and it resonates deeply during a final act solely dependent on taut direction. The editorial work is also crucial, with the team of Frederic and William Steinkamp perfectly capturing reaction and terror in one nearly dialogue-free scene.
Fearing that his house has been bugged and dying to illustrate the direness of his situation to Abby, Mitch cranks the home stereo to top volume and clutches his wife to his chest, whispering every detail into her ear. We initially get a close up of Mitch’s mouth, slowly and calmly enunciating, transitioning abruptly to Abby widening her eyes and allowing fear to envelop her furrowed brow. The passage feels like it occurs outside of time, eliciting a heightened attention through the soundless conveyance of words and sharpness of editing, drawing us deeper into the mystery.
The Firm manages to function as a tightly wound and thoroughly enthralling thriller, despite the foggy moral compass, shifting gears without losing steam and taking risks without undermining our devotion to the characters. It’s rather sophisticated for this type of fare and transparent enough to tell its story through the mouths of imperfect men.
The Firm (Paramount Pictures, 1993)
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Written by David Rabe (screenplay), Robert Towne (screenplay), David Rayfiel (screenplay) and John Grisham (novel)
Photographed by John Seale