Published on April 11th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
The Firm 
Summary: Sydney Pollack puts together a taut thriller that's arguably Grisham's best film adaptation. Watching Cruise and Hackman dance is a class in acting. This is a much more unsettling picture than your typical legal fare.
R | 154 min.
Director: Sydney Pollack | Screenplay: David Rabe, Robert Towne, David Rayfiel (from John Grisham’s novel)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, Jeanne Tripplehorn
Distribution: Paramount Pictures | Box Office: $158,348,367 (#4 of 1993)
Among actor/directors, Sydney Pollack had a style so polished that watching his movies feels like riding in the back of a Cadillac. Whether he was co-starring in great films like 2007’s Michael Clayton and 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut or he was directing Oscar winners Tootsie and Out of Africa in the ’80s–Pollack was just smooth. In the past decade, George Clooney and Ben Affleck have successfully made the transition from acting to directing, following a path paved best by Pollack and Clint Eastwood.
His 1993 offering was a creepy thriller based on John Grisham’s breakout novel The Firm. We’ve covered Grisham adaptations by great directors before but when this film came out, the moviegoing world didn’t really have a clue who the lawyer cum author was, as this was his first book to be adapted to the big screen. However, in 1993 everyone knew Tom Cruise, which put a lot of eyes on The Firm.
In fact, Cruise’s stardom brought some unnecessary and frankly, petty controversy to Pollack’s film. Co-star Gene Hackman, already a full-blown Hollywood icon, pulled his name from The Firm‘s end credits after a dispute with studio Paramount Pictures. Hackman wanted to see his name above the film’s title on promotional items (AKA: top billing), however Paramount would only allow Cruise’s name to appear above the title due to his contract. So as a result of this battle of egos, you won’t find Hackman’s name in any trailers for the picture, despite the fact he gives a brilliant performance.
The entire supporting cast of The Firm is a dream for any acting fan. Jeanne Tripplehorn, Hal Holbrook, Ed Harris, David Strathairn and my darling Holly Hunter are all in top form. Plus just for kicks you get a hell of a nasty performance from “diabetis” supply peddler Wilford Brimley, as well as short takes from Gary Busey, Tobin Bell (Jigsaw from the Saw series) and Terry Kinney (Tim McManus from Oz). Really the only person missing from this movie is Pollack himself.
Cruise plays Mitch McDeere, a hungry young Harvard Law student on the brink of graduation. He gets job offers from law firms across the country but settles on Bendini, Lambert & Locke, a small tax law outfit based in Memphis (did I mention it’s a Grisham adaptation?), after they woo he and his wife Abby (Tripplehorn) with money and the firm’s tight family atmosphere. Mitch is taken under the wing of the enigmatic Avery Tolar (Hackman), who spends most of his time working with big money clients in the Cayman Islands. As Mitch starts to uncover some dark secrets about the firm’s practices he begins to grow paranoid that there will be no escape from their grip.
Tensions may have been high between the two leads off-set but it doesn’t show in the picture. Cruise and Hackman are a thrill to watch together. McDeere is one of Cruise’s most low-key characters as you won’t see him flying off the handle, screaming dialogue–usually a staple of any Cruise performance. He often seems to only be as good as his supporting cast, giving a strong starring take here, being tested constantly by the talent staring at him in each scene.
I hesitate to call The Firm a legal thriller because there are no scenes spent inside a courtroom in the film’s over two hours. This movie is a straight up psychological thriller, with a bit of a horror feel. The terror comes from the fact that Pollack makes The Firm feel so damn claustrophobic. The partners at Bendini, Lambert & Locke are overbearing from the start, caring a little too much about Mitch & Abby’s family plans. At one point you get the feeling they are involved in some kind of child harvesting cult but in reality they want the young lawyer to morph himself into a clone of the other men at the firm. You feel the walls begin to close in on Mitch as he’s stuck between doing the right thing and his shot at living a comfortable life.
I just dig how unsettling this picture is. You’ve got an eerie feeling from the first time Mitch interviews with the firm and it never settles down, only multiplies. The Firm is just downright ominous, like The Stepford Wives of lawyer flicks–you just know things are too perfect and when the facade falls away, it’s going to get ugly.
The Firm does drag a bit though, losing its focus for a few almost silly sequences involving Hunter and Busey’s oddball characters. I wish more time was spent on Mitch’s backstory and the history with his brother Ray (Strathairn), who’s locked up on a manslaughter conviction. Mitch could have been a richer character if we’d seen him struggle a bit more with the temptations of working at the firm. Instead, we see him through rose-tinted glasses as the textbook protagonist who’s out to rid the world of corruption.
For my money, this is the finest adaptation of a Grisham novel. Joel Schumacher’s 1996 version of A Time to Kill features some big time stars, including great work from Matthew McConaughey and Sam Jackson, but it was so melodramatic and predictable. I respect The Firm for being different in a genre that’s so stock. I give Pollack a lot of credit for the Hitchcockian style he gave to this one, but the greatest success of this effort is its stellar cast. Every scene in the picture has at least one powerhouse actor and even if they’re not reciting Shakespeare, it’s just a blast to watch these folks at work.
Sadly, Pollack would only direct four more pictures before his death in 2008 but his onscreen performances in the last ten years of his life are some of the smoothest you’ll see this side of Paul Newman. He just made it look so damn easy.