The Client (1994)
You all voted for a mix of old and new reviews so here’s a more contemporary film for you, the 1994 Joel Schumacher directed adaptation of John Grisham‘s novel The Client. I’d seen bits and pieces of this film before, and I do enjoy Schumacher’s other film with Brad Renfro, Sleepers. By the end of this particular film I liked it, it wasn’t a waste, but I probably wouldn’t watch it again (it’s one of those movies). A good way to knock back two hours.
Eleven-year-old Mark Sway (Brad Renfro) gets mixed up with a Mafia lawyer attempting to kill himself. Sadly the lawyer reveals to Mark where the body of a murdered senator is hidden before his death. With the mob out to silence Mark and a holier than thou District Attorney (Tommy Lee Jones) trying to get Mark to spill his secrets, the boy turns to a damaged lawyer (Susan Sarandon) to protect him.
These type of court procedurals, Mafia movie, John Grisham adaptations are like bubble gum. They’re enjoyable, you know what you’re getting, and you have fun with it. The gum eventually loses its flavor, you toss it and get a new piece. I love when I come up with analogies that work! That’s ultimately what I felt about watching The Client. I had fun with it, I figured out where it was going, and I was able to move on knowing I had watched a good movie. Director Joel Schumacher’s movies pre-1998 are generally solid (I’m sure someone will throw out a movie before that sucked) and the script by Grisham and Akiva Goldsman is tight. The movie doesn’t waste time in telling who character traits, you learn all of that as Mark gets his mother (played with white trash aplomb by Mary-Louise Parker) ready to go to work.
This is Brad Renfro’s film debut and it’s astounding to see the entire film carried on the shoulders of an untested young boy. It’s even sadder to realize Renfro’s talent didn’t pan out as he eventually died of drug problems in 2008. Either way, his turn as Mark Sway is legitimately amazing (and he returned to Schumacher territory two years later in the aforementioned Sleepers where he was equally good). You understand that Sway is more of a parent than his mother is. He gets her ready for work like a mother prepares her child for school, asking if she has her lunch, bus money, and car keys. Renfro never plays Mark like a child wise beyond his years, a mini-adult, he’s just bent on surviving and protecting his family from those who’d seek to harm them. He’s attempting to have a good day with his little brother Ricky (David Speck) when the mob lawyer shows up to commit suicide. Even then, Mark’s tries to prevent the man from killing himself which gets him into more trouble.
As the film progresses and Mark doesn’t want to tell, the various bad characters out to kill him seem to be physical manifestations of his troubles trying to consume him. When an overzealous police officer played by Will Patton tries to intimidate him Mark doesn’t crack, he’s a boy who is aware that he “knows something he shouldn’t know.” What’s great is that the adults constantly underestimate Mark, playing on the fears that a child would have. Case in point, that officer telling Mark that he if doesn’t confess he’ll go to a “kid-sized electric chair.” The adults are continuously trying to play on a childishness that Mark obviously lacks. They come off as far stupider than a child would. Watching this movie now, where children are given iPhones and are smarter than expected, this plot element still works. Even when the big FBI guys show up already crowing about how Mark is going to “tell all” the boy doesn’t crack.
The movie seems to be a thinly veiled attack on uptight white men because not only do they look like idiots attacking and underestimating a child, they also underestimate the lone female of worth; Mark’s attorney Regina “Reggie” Love played by Susan Sarandon. When we first meet Reggie Mark assumes she’s the secretary and scoffs at having a “woman lawyer.” As a woman I would have punted that kid across the room but when he complains about the lawyers who didn’t help him or his mother Reggie asks if they were all men…to which he replies yes. Susan Sarandon has such a strong grace about her in this role. She’s beautiful to be sure but she’s tough as nails under all of that. When Mark goes to meet the FBI guys and Reggie enters the room Foltrigg says he was surprised she was a lawyer because “you’re so pretty.” The flashy compliment doesn’t sway her though and she puts the men in their place.
Reggie has just as much of a troubled life as Mark, probably why they get along so well. We learn that Reggie was an alcoholic who lost her children because of her problems. Through Mark she seems to get a second chance to be the mother he never had. They have a symbiotic relationship of sorts as Mark has always been the adult to his infantile mother whereas Reggie has been that mother and wants to prove she’s changed. At the end she finds redemption for her failures as Mark…and you kind of wish she was his mother! It’s an interesting character switch but the movie is already all about switching the notions of the audience.
The audience is definitely kept on their toes as you never truly know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. We know Foltrigg is meant to be the good guy, and in any other movie he’d probably be the hero. I mean the guy’s so pure he drinks milk when we first meet him! Jones plays the same type of uptight semi-jerk he’s known for, nothing pushing the boundaries there but even these “good guys” have serious flaws. They try to help Mark but their ideas of protection are so heavy-handed and downright abusive you end up hating them anyway leaving you to root for Mark and Reggie. I mean they decide to throw Mark in jail to get him to appear in court and compel him to testify. When Mark is put in the cell the scene cuts to Foltrigg hanging up the phone saying “one child in jail.” It’s a laughably absurd moment because it doesn’t feel like they’ve done anything good. They’ve just ripped a child away from his mother and put him in jail to make their case stronger…not exactly the mark of a hero.
I think that’s what I enjoyed most about The Client. It showcases a female that is more of a hero than all the men in the top echelons of government. Sure she’s relegated to playing a nurturing role but she comes off as far smarter than the powerful men of the FBI. Tops to you Grisham and Goldsman! The Client is a good movie. It’s got great performances from Renfro and Sarandon, and hell it’s even got Anthony Lapaglia in a bad guy role! I don’t know about you but I’ve never seen him play a bad guy (mind you the big film of his I’ve seen is as the friend in So I Married an Axe Murderer which is one of the best comedies ever!). It changes the rules, it’s a solid film, check it out!
Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
I really love this movie, love all the main characters and was sad when I heard about Brad Renfro passing away. He was one of the many underrated actors out there! Glad you enjoyed it!
This movie definitely showcased Renfro’s talent. I must admit I haven’t seen any of his work when he got older but you can definitely see something in him in this performance, had the potential for greatness. Thanks for reading!
This actually sounded like I film I would totally enjoyed. I must say, I got very excited to hear about Renfro. I saw The Cure (his third movie?) when I was young and I enjoyed it very much. I thought he delivered a pretty awesome performance. I don’t know if I’d still feel the same about that movie now, but I have very fond memories of it. Have you seen it by chance?
I was happy to have seen it, it’s been recommended to me by my family a bunch of times. I haven’t seen The Cure although I’m interested in seeing more of Renfro’s stuff, aside from this and Sleepers I’m light on his body of work.
The Client was an enjoyable movie. I have always been a fan of Susan Sarandon. I really liked her character – flawed but still a strong female character. As for Brad Renfro, I thought he did a good job. He was also good in Apt Pupil and Sleepers. The year after the movie there was a short-lived 21 episode TV series based on the movie with JoBeth Williams in the starring role. It was average.
I want to see Apt Pupil, I’ve heard it’s great. I didn’t know there was a television show, they seemed to do that to everything in the 90s. Thanks for reading!
A very well written review. It’s been a long time since I last saw this film but I remember being impressed by it and Susan Sarandon.