Swimming with the Sharks
In my review of this summer’s Return to Paradise, I revealed my sneaking suspicion that we’re heading into a new golden age of film, heralded by the slew of intelligent, artistic young actors now breaking out. We get another preview of where this vanguard — here represented by Matt Damon and Claire Danes — is going to take the art of film in The Rainmaker.
Rudy Baylor (Damon) is a law student in Memphis, a town so “infested” with lawyers, according to Rudy, that he has no choice but to take a job with a disreputable firm run by shyster “Bruiser” Stone (Mickey Rourke). His first case is that of teenager Donny Ray Black (Johnny Whitworth), who is dying of leukemia after his insurance company refused to pay for treatment. Donny Ray and his family sign a contract for Rudy’s services in a scene that seems ominous just by the fact that we witness it. Surely, this will come back to haunt these desperate, poor people. Surely, they’re gonna get taken by this shark-in-training.
But The Rainmaker is based on a John Grisham novel, and Rudy is a Grisham hero — moral, upright, and just as cute as can be. Put it down to Damon’s skill that we can suspect that his Rudy mightn’t be such a nice guy after all, not just in the one scene above but at yet another contract-signing, as he agrees to handle the will of an old lady who (yikes) wants to leave her riches to a televangelist because “his jet is getting old.”
Damon gets to go to town with Rudy, not in the showy, stagey way that stereotypically defines “acting,” but in the small touches that build a character, because The Rainmaker meanders its way through the story it wants to tell, letting its inhabitants rather than its plot dictate the action. He makes Rudy almost Elmore Leonard-esque, an ethical “bad guy” (because don’t we see even the good lawyers as villains?). Rudy is at once idealistic and realistic about the esteem in which lawyers are held. He’s savvy to the sharks’ methods, and while he’s forthright in his representation of his clients’ interests (and gets more personally involved with them than is necessary), he’s ever crafty and wily. When Rudy begs a judge’s forgiveness for his mistakes in the courtroom, we’re never quite sure if the naif routine is one he’s putting on for the leeway it gives him or if it’s truly just his inexperience showing.
The Rainmaker doesn’t stop Rudy from wandering into another story, that of Kelly Riker (Danes), a domestic abuse victim he meets one day while trolling for clients at the local hospital. He half-heartedly attempts to get her to sign up with his firm, but he can’t do it — he starts to feel protective of her. In an electrifying exchange that’s all the more mesmerizing because of the hushed tones it transpires in, he pleads with her to file for divorce from her vicious husband (Andrew Shue), but she’s too afraid. Danes hardens Kelly’s fragility with a hint of backbone, however, so that when Kelly does finally start to wise up and take the situation into her own hands, we can believe she had it in her all along.
Damon and Danes are fabulous together, and even more than the surprisingly complex story and nice cameos and deft and economical direction by Francis Ford Coppola, they are what makes The Rainmaker worth seeing. I hope we see them together again soon.