This Writer’s Life by Drusilla Campbell
I can’t help analyzing every book I read, every movie I see. After so many years, deconstructing plot and character to see what they can teach me is built into my enjoyment of the media experience. Case in point: “The Lincoln Lawyer.” On the way home after seeing the movie, I started analyzing what it was that made a so-so movie so very entertaining.
Spoiler alert! Don’t read on unless you know the story or don’t care.
We love mysteries in all their variations because puzzle making and solving is in our DNA and essential to our predatory core. Back in the day when survival depended on the success of the hunt, if we wanted to eat we figured out how to trap and kill our prey. How to kill a mastodon and get it home in time for dinner was a pretty serious puzzle. The ones clever enough to figure out how to do it lived and thrived and reproduced.
In the earliest literature, we loved a righteous battle, good goes head-to-head against evil, risking everything. We still do. Until we know how it turns out, we can’t put the book down or leave the theater to go to the bathroom. The battle itself restores our faith in the world, helps us believe that it’s not just crazies-on-crazies out there. And if the guy on the screen or in the book can win, we can too. In all the immortal myths and epics as well as in the flimsiest thriller and romance, there must be someone to root for or why do we care?
There’s a lot of crying and drinking in “The Lincoln Lawyer.” In the movie, it’s what passes for characterization. Not great art, but it’s for a purpose a novelist can learn from. The point of the sogginess is to make Haller, who is a sleazy, fast talking defender of the world’s scummiest clients, an appealing character the viewer can recognize as a fully human being and worthy in spite of his questionable ethics. And did I mention that he loves his daughter and treats employees and strangers with decency? All going to prove that Mickey has human weaknesses, empathy and a heart that can be broken. To most viewers and readers that translates as likeable. But here’s what makes him a character strong enough to hold books and movies together whether you like him or not. Very early in the story we learn that he has done something wrong and must make it right to square himself with the universe. He’s fighting to save his soul.
That’s the BIG IDEA that drives the movie and the book and it works.
“The Lincoln Lawyer” is the stuff of great drama. Man vs. his dark side, man vs. consummate evil, man vs. the destroyer, man vs. the bottle. Kill the bad guy, protect the family, save the pretty girl. It’s got all the elements of a classic except that it isn’t a classic, it’s just a yarn well told. And that’s what most movies and novels are – or aim to be – good yarns. “The Lincoln Lawyer” reminded me of how to make a good yarn happen.
Drusilla Campbell is Board President of San Diego Writers, Ink. Before settling in San Diego, she lived and worked in Australia, London, Central America, California and Appalachia. After receiving her MA she worked for WAMU-FM, the NPR affiliate in Washington, DC where she was an on-air personality. She’s published more than sixteen novels including the best selling Blood Orange and, most recently, The Good Sister. Drusilla is the creator of NovelCram, two day boot camp for aspiring novelists. She frequently speaks at writing conferences and has taught classes in crafting the novel at UC Fullerton, University of California at San Diego, The Writing Center, The Writer’s Room and San Diego Writers, Ink. Drusilla is married to the poet and law professor, Art Campbell. They have two children, two rescued dogs and four horses.