Review: “The Pelican Brief” (Film)

Well, I got temporarily distracted from reading the next novel I plan to review (“The Snow Queen” by Joan D. Vinge) by another film. And, of course, I was still in the mood for 1990s films too. So, I thought that I’d take a look at a film from 1993 called “The Pelican Brief”.

Although this film is apparently based on a John Grisham novel (which I haven’t read at the time of writing), I think that I first became aware of this film when I first noticed a VHS copy of it in either a video rental shop or the library of my old secondary school.

Although my younger self dismissed it as “boring” and didn’t watch it, it lingered in my mind for some reason. And, when I was looking online for second-hand DVDs, I realised that it was probably a bit different from modern ultra fast-paced Hollywood movies and was curious enough to take a look at it.

So, let’s take a look at “The Pelican Brief”. I’ll avoid major plot SPOILERS here, but expect a few mild ones.

The begins with scenes showing political protests in Washington D.C. That night, a man in a hotel room recieves a mysterious envelope and makes a phone call. Shortly afterwards, two elderly Supreme Court judges are murdered by a mysterious assassin. When the President is informed about these crimes, the F.B.I point out that there don’t seem to be any leads yet.

In New Orleans, a law student called Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) attends a lecture before meeting up with her professor, Callahan, later. The two are lovers, but their relationship is slightly troubled given that Callahan is grieving the deaths of his friends at the Supreme Court and has started drinking heavily.

Intrigued by the case, Shaw decides to do some research and eventually writes a document that sets out her theories about who is most likely to have a motive for committing these murders. Although she isn’t sure whether her theories are entirely correct, she gives the document to Callahan to look at. He passes it on to a friend of his at the F.B.I.

Of course, being the early 1990s, Shaw has to do actual library research.

Sometime later, the couple visit a restaurant. Because Callahan is drunk and refuses to hand over his car keys, Shaw reluctantly decides to walk home. But, before she can get too far from the car, Callahan turns the key and a bomb beneath the car goes off. When Shaw finds herself being questioned by two detectives – one of whom turns out to be an impostor – she realises that her theories might be more true than she thought. Fearful for her life, she suddenly decides to go into hiding.

Luckily, Shaw just happens to have a disguise ready for such situations.

Meanwhile, Washington Herald journalist Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) is looking into the murders too. He has got a call from a mysterious source called “Garcia” who initially promises to tell him about the case, but is hesitant about meeting him. Although Grantham is able to surreptitiously photograph him during one of their other phone calls, he still doesn’t know much about the man.

A bulky film camera and a car-phone? Wow, this is wonderfully 1990s 🙂

Then, one night, he gets a call from “Garcia” asking to meet up. A couple of minutes later, “Garcia” calls agan to cancel the meeting. Annoyed by this, Grantham is about to go to bed when he gets another phone call. It is from Shaw…

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that, although it takes a little bit of time to really become compelling, it’s a really great example of an old-school thriller film that combines elements from both the suspense and detective genres in a fairly understated and realistic way. Seriously, I miss the days when slightly more intelligent mid-budget films like this were actually popular in Hollywood. In other words, this is the kind of film that would probably be a prestigious TV series if it was made today.

In terms of the film’s thriller elements, they work reasonably well. The film includes some really good suspense, with occasional fast-paced chase sequences (where Shaw is pursued by assassins) being counterpointed by a gradually-building feeling of paranoia and nervousness that – whilst relatively subtle – still lingered in my mind even after the main part of the plot had been resolved. Unlike some thriller films, “The Pelican Brief” also keeps these scenes fairly “realistic” too – which helps to give the film a bit less of a “Hollywood” quality and makes the story’s events seem disturbingly plausible too.

In other words, don’t expect this to be too much of an action movie. Still, it is kind of refreshing to watch this type of thriller film.

In addition to all of this suspense, the film also keeps itself compelling through a rather interesting central mystery too. Although it is made clear fairly early on that there is some kind of conspiracy happening, a good portion of the film revolves around Shaw and Grantham trying to get to the bottom of it and – more importantly- uncover enough evidence to support a newspaper article about it. This allows the film to include a few elements from the detective genre too – with most of these scenes being fairly old-school ones involving interviewing people and/or trying to find evidence using various creative methods.

Likewise, whilst Shaw has a fairly good idea of who is probably responsible for the murders, this information is carefully withheld from the audience until about halfway through the film via the narrative device of her not quite knowing who she can trust. This helps to prevent this element of the film from becoming contrived and also allows for a bit of genuine mystery before the emphasis of the film shifts towards trying to find proof of Shaw’s theory. It’s a really clever way of blending the detective and thriller genres 🙂

In general, this is a proper old-school thriller of the type that probably isn’t all that fashionable in this age of superheroes and CGI-filled action fests and it is an absolute joy to watch 🙂 Seriously, it’s so good to see a thriller that not only assumes that the audience is actually paying attention, but also doesn’t need to rely on ridiculous amounts of special effects too 🙂 This is a film for mature audiences in the best possible sense of the term 🙂

As for the characters, they’re really good and all come across as fairly realistic people. Yes, being a film, it only really focuses on the characters during the events of the story (and I imagine that the original novel probably includes more backstory etc…) but the acting is absolutely superb and the characters really feel like actual realistic people. Although, being a thriller, the main focus is more on the plot than on the characters – the excellent acting from Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington does an absolutely great job supporting this plot and keeping the film compelling 🙂

I should probably mention this film’s length and pacing. Although – at two hours and fifteen minutes – it is long enough for the older DVD edition I watched to actually require you to flip the disc over halfway through the film and I’d also be lying if I didn’t say that this extended length initially made me reluctant to watch this film, the length is – for the most part – justified.

I’m not joking about having to flip the disc over halfway through the film. There’s even an instructional animation about it. It’s literally like a tiny Laserdisc!

Although this film would probably be considered fairly “slow paced” by modern standards, this style of pacing will probably be familiar to anyone who reads novels or watches modern TV dramas and it is so refreshing to see more naturalistic pacing and editing like this in an actual Hollywood film.

As for set design and lighting, this film is glorious 🙂 Seriously, I absolutely love the gloomy, gothic and atmospheric style of lighting that was popular during the 1990s and it is here in abundance 🙂 Yes, a couple of early scenes are perhaps a bit too gloomy (and you can barely make out what is happening) but, for the most part, this film’s lighting design expertly contrasts brightness and gloom in a way that gives the film a wonderfully distinctive “90s” look that is an absolute joy to behold 🙂

I love how, during the 1990s, directors could still add some much-needed visual contrast to even the brightest of locations 🙂

Likewise, I cannot praise the set design enough. Yes, most of the sets are fairly “realistic” locations, but they have that wonderful lived-in “1990s America” quality to them and there’s a really good mixture between more understated interior locations, bustling city streets (with the scenes set in New Orleans looking especially gorgeous) and wonderfully imposing and sumptuous libraries, offices etc… And, of course, the film’s lighting design really helps to make the most of these locations 🙂

Seriously, the lighting and set design here is wonderfully 1990s 🙂

And just look at the clever use of orange and blue lighting here. Seriously, I really miss the “look” of 1990s films 🙂

All in all, this is a really great old-school thriller film 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit on the longer side of things and some viewers may find it a bit “slow-paced”, but it’s great to see a film that tells an intelligent, novelistic story in a confident way. If you’re a fan of the more understated style of thriller films – like “The Net” (which I really must re-watch sometime) or “Clear And Present Danger” – that were popular in the 1990s, then you’ll probably really enjoy this one 🙂 Seriously, if this was made these days, it’d probably be a ten-episode TV series rather than a film.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.

2 comments on “Review: “The Pelican Brief” (Film)

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