Francis Ford Coppola didn’t just call his film “The Rainmaker.” He called it “John Grisham’s The Rainmaker.” I understand the significance as a large portion of the film relies on voiceover narration from its main character, Rudy Baylor (played very well by Matt Damon). The film focuses on much of the underpinnings of the legal system within the state of Tennessee. Rudy gives insight into his position of ethical practice – he’s fresh out of law school, but doesn’t have a license yet – versus the large giant sell out attorneys (a towering, sharp dressed and slick Jon Voight) that represent goliath parties like big time insurance companies. Grisham’s novel, along with Coppola’s screenplay, also leave room in the beginning of the film for the sleaze of the law practice with Rudy’s first employer who goes by the moniker “Bruiser,” played by an oily Mickey Rourke.
Rudy has not even passed the bar exam at the start of the film but he’s already got three cases in progress. He has agreed to completing a will for a kind old lady (Teresa Wright) who is adamant about leaving her estate to a television evangelist. He also volunteers himself to protecting a young woman named Kelly (Claire Danes) from an abusive husband. His biggest case is going after a million dollar insurance company for wrongfully denying a claim filed by one of it’s ill insured. Rudy knows the insured is justified to sue and it could be a huge and necessary windfall for him and his unlicensed, corner cutting partner (Danny DeVito), but it’s only him against a grand army of legal gods lead by the great Leo F. Drummond, Esq. (Voight).
Grisham and Coppola wanted to depict a drive for doing right by the law and the people it’s meant to protect. Damon’s portrayal of Rudy represents that ideal. His father hated lawyers and he grew up in a home life that never responded favorably to the merits of officers of the court. Rudy defies what his father frowned upon. Despite his inexperience in a courtroom and his ability to respond with objections and cited legal rules, he knows he’ll be a good lawyer simply because he can distinguish between right and wrong. He doesn’t need to sink as low as Drummond’s cronies by bugging the opposition’s office. Will Rudy’s righteousness be enough though? He’s so dang honorable in his profession that it might just be the ultimate means of his defeat.
Same can be said for Rudy’s will to protect Kelly, the young, abused wife. Precedents of law keep her husband on the streets no matter how bruised and bloody she gets time and again. This man is a monster, but no higher power is looking upon this victimized wife to legally protect her and this man will continue to beat her until one day she’s dead. Rudy wears his heart on his sleeve for this woman and again can only serve as an honorable servant of the court. When he steps out of that line a little by risking his life to save this woman, he’s testing his own sworn code that he’s respected while others have dismissed it.
“John Grisham’s The Rainmaker” is one of those under the radar films not celebrated enough. I recall it being shown in limited theatre capacity, and it hardly did well at the box office, but it’s really a remarkable piece as it shows an unconventional and honorable attorney, reminiscent of Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch but set in modern day. Nearly everyone around Rudy, from his own father that he describes to the students he attended law school with to even the even the fool of a judge (Dean Stockwell) who swears him in as well as his own partner (DeVito in a hilarious, quick solving, underhanded role), are beyond any moral compass and yet Damon ensures Rudy Baylor sticks to his convictions.
Coppola’s film is not a legal thriller. It’s an observation of how the established perceive the law and the one fish who treads water above the bottom feeders, allegorically shown in Bruiser’s fish tank, seeking out big rewards. For Rudy, the client matters. For everyone else, only the money matters.