The Rainmaker (1997)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writer: Francis Ford Coppola; based on The Rainmaker by John Grisham
Cinematographer: John Toll
Producer: Michael Douglas, Fred Fuchs, and Steven Reuther
by Jon Cvack
I know I had seen The Rainmaker once upon a time, recently discovering Netflix saves your rental history and looks like I watched this back on March 11, 2008, which was back in my junior year of college when I might have had a few too many Seagram’s to remember much; supported by the fact that while I remembered images and individual moments, I had no clue about the incredible cast - Jon Voight, Mickey Rourke, Matt Damon, Danny DeVito, Claire Danes, Dean Stockwell, Virginia Madsen, and Danny Glover, all directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
The story is part of that great 90s revival of procedural dramas - Ghosts of the Mississippi, A Time to Kill, Primal Fear, and the 12 Angry Men remake (with the exception of A Civil Action (‘98) all being made between 1996/1997), and with such an extraordinary number of such a specific type of the film it’s no surprise that the movie was a great success.
I’m always left wondering what happened to Francis Ford Coppola when seeing anything he made after Apocalypse Now, wondering if he truly did pour everything he had into that film, never able to achieve the same level again. The Rainmaker isn’t bad; but it’s not bad the way Rumble Fish isn’t bad. It just doesn’t even come close to the expertise and craft of The Godfather I & II and Apocalypse Now.
Similar to The Firm (made in 1993), Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) is a fresh law school grad and idealistic young man who hopes to use his law for the good, currently a bartender in Memphis, unable to find a job in the lawyer heavy town. He hasn’t yet passed the bar, though gets involved with a local ambulance chaser and massively undeveloped character J. Lyman Stone (Mickey Rourke) who could just as well operate a Reno casino. His attorneys are only paid with the cases they bring in, which he then gets a percent of. Rudy gets synced up with paralegal and six-time BAR Exam flunkie Deck Shifflet (Danny Devito). Operating in Stone’s firm for so long, Deck knows all the tricks, having a full rolodex of contacts at the local hospitals where they meet 22 year old Donny Ray (Johnny Whitworth) who’s in for his cancer treatment, currently on his deathbed after his insurance company failed to pay for a bone marrow transplant.
Rudy soon meets Kelly Riker (Claire Danes); a victim of domestic abuse, who Rudy immediately grows infatuated with in a mildly weird way, in that even though the woman is bruised and beaten, he still has some strange attraction to the girl; as though Rudy was more determined to help because he found her pretty rather than because he felt a genuine concern for her welfare and just so happened to develop an attraction.
In a massive plot rush, Stone makes headlines after the FBI open up an investigation into possible racketeering, leading Shifflet and Rudy to jump ship and open their own law firm where they make a quick high six figure sum after settling a personal injury case which leaves them with the means to take on Danny Ray’s case, suing Great Benefit health insurance for $10 million. The defense is led by a classic and powerful role from John Voight who plays the rich corporate attorney Leo F. Drummond whose personality and mind is as fascinating as any of the other characters.
While Stone makes a slight return to the story, I didn’t fully understand his role. He’s one of the first characters introduced in the film who serves no purpose beyond getting Rudy a job and then helping them out with some files. I haven’t read the book, but assume that this person had a much larger role. Yet for such a big character, played by such a big person, I also wonder if maybe some of the scenes hit the floor.
Regardless the rest of the cast is incredible, setting up a great setting, which in this case, in an age before the Affordable Care Act, insurers could prey on poor or ignorant people, get them to purchase a predatory and otherwise useless health plan, and never pay a dime, rejecting their every claim. In Donny Ray’s case, they didn’t want to pay for the bone marrow transplant, figuring it unproven.
As mentioned, I haven’t read much John Grisham, but it’s a film like this that makes me want to pick up a book. The plot is far from all that original and yet the characters are so rich. The film was Grisham’s second, heavily autobiographical and based off his own experiences as a young Memphis attorney. What we discover is that, like any industry, competition is fierce, and far from everyone’s got noble intentions. For some, the purpose is to get rich and powerful.
I always think of what it’d be like to have a legal job at some gigantic corporation like Shell Oil, handling lawsuits, using all your knowledge and education to prevent individuals from finding justice. The job is to protect the interests of the rich and powerful, in the hopes of becoming rich and powerful. And on the flip side is Rudy, who’s determined to use the privilege for good, seeing how tilted the scales are, and how massive and well financed his opponents are.
The movie does a perfect job of inserting politics without being political, using argument to prove a point; in this case that Great Benefits had unlawfully rejected the claims of over 90% of their clients, including Donn Ray. Initially the trial is led by Dean Stockwell, who now that I think about it, also had a terribly brief role as the tobacco loving Judge Harvey Hail, who quickly suffers a heart attack after looking to be more big business friendly, as he had often been. Hail’s replaced by his political mirror and former civil rights attorney Tyrone Kipler (Danny Glover) who is clearly more sympathetic to Donny Ray’s case. He’s also the film’s most fascinating character, as while wanting justice for the Ray’s family, he’s committed to following procedure and rule, even if that means some facts won’t be shared. For instance, they secure former Great Benefit employee Jackie Lemanczyk (Virginia Madsen), who provides them with an internal employee guide that has a mysterious "Section G” instructing all employees to reject the vast majority of claims, totaling about 100,000, where they only paid out 90,000. Unfortunately, it was obtained through stealing and is therefore impermissible.
It’s this kind of detail and insight that makes the film so fascinating. Just as you feel David Simon’s personal connection to The Wire, using the tiniest details to show how the system works, Grisham achieves the same with law. There are moments that I’d be ashamed to list, for fear of getting wrong, yet which proved the legal means in which the case was arranged and debated. Add the amazing cast and it felt as though I was following an actual event. It’s not my favorite procedural, but it’s definitely one of the best from that 90s pool.
BELOW: Jon Voight as another great 90s villain
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