Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Rainmaker” (1997)

Notable Festivals: Berlinale (Out of Competition)

The 1990’s saw director Francis Ford Coppola regain some of the clout he had squandered in the 80’s with high profile hits like THE GODFATHER PART III (1990) and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992).  Fortunately, he was able to close out the decade (and the millennium) on a high note by adapting a popular John Grisham novel into an entertaining character drama.  Titled THE RAINMAKER (1997), Coppola’s last big studio film (so far) was greeted with a fair deal of praise and grossed just barely above its production budget.  It was a small victory for a man who was in dire need of them.

THE RAINMAKER stars Matt Damon as Rudy Baylor, an ambitious and eager law student who gets his first job working for an eccentric, flamboyant, and possibly corrupt lawyer named Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke).  When his employment doesn’t turn out as life-affirming as he expected, Baylor teams up with Stone’s pint-sized business partner Deck Shiffle (Danny DeVito) to form their own firm.  To drum up their client list, they set their sights on the case of a young man dying of bone marrow cancer who’s life would have been saved if his health insurance covered a certain operation.  Sensing a wrongful death suit, Baylor and Shiffle set about investigating the business practices of the boy’s insurance carrier, Great Benefit.  They unwittingly discover a vast conspiracy of denying claims to those in need purely for profit purposes, so the two enterprising lawmen launch a civil suit to expose this massive corporate malfeasance.  In the process, Baylor finds he can’t help breaking his number one rule: don’t get personally and emotionally involved with his clients.

Coppola has assembled a fine cast here, and everyone is convincing and effective in their roles.  Damon, looking slim and boyish in one of his earliest film performances, adopts a southern drawl to better communicate the film’s Memphis setting.  His Rudy Baylor is virtuous, whip-smart, and caring—everything you’d expect a protagonist to be.  It’s a strong performance by Damon, but not necessarily standout—despite starring in a Francis Ford Coppola film, he didn’t turn any heads until later that year in Gus Van Sant’s GOOD WILL HUNTING.

DeVito, as usual, steals the show as Baylor’s disheveled business partner, Deck Shiffle.  DeVito imbues the character with a sleazy, yet loveable charm.  The man, who isn’t exactly a lawyer himself since he failed the Bar six times, pursues potential new clients with reckless abandon—even while they’re recuperating in a hospital bed.  Normally, we’d view this behavior as despicable, but DeVito pulls it off with a degree of good-natured earnestness that gives him more of the aura of “loveable scamp” instead of “sleazy shark”.

Jon Voight plays Leo Drummond—a genial, well-heeled southern gentleman who represents his client Great Benefit, which makes him the de-facto antagonist.  Drummond is slippery, smooth, and razor-sharp.  He’s the kind of lawyer that knows every trick in the book and will turn the tables on you without you realizing until it’s too late.  It’s a strong, subdued performance from Voight, one that gives the film palpable tension without resorting to cliché “bad guy” archetypes.  And speaking of archetypes, there is a love interest in the film, played by Claire Danes (who was then experiencing a surge in fame after her performance as one half of the titular couple in Baz Luhrmann’s ROMEO + JULIET (1996)).  Her character, Kelly Riker, spends most of her screen time under heavy bandages as a victim of serial domestic abuse.  She’s young, pretty, and strong—especially when she has to defend her life against her abusive husband.

A bevy of familiar faces rounds out Coppola’s supporting cast, starting with Mickey Rourke as Baylor’s first boss, Bruiser.  Rourke imbues the role with a thuggish, flamboyant sensibility that telegraphs his corrupt nature like a street sign.  Regular Coppola performer Dean Stockwell returns as Judge Hale, a grumpy, sickly man who abruptly dies at the outset of Baylor’s suit against Great Benefit.  He is replaced by Danny Glover, who’s Judge Kipler character is a hardass, by-the-book kind of fellow.   Virgina Madsen appears as Jackie, one of Baylor’s key witnesses who could break the entire case open, but instead crumples into a sobbing pile under Voight’s expert counter-examinations.  And finally there’s Roy Scheider—of Coppola contemporary Steven Spielberg’s  JAWS (1975) fame—who has a small, yet key role as Wilford Keeley, the ultra-wealthy CEO of Great Benefit.  There’s a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo thrown around by all parties involved, and it’s a testament to their talent and Coppola’s direction that they all actually sound like they know what they’re talking about.

The look of THE RAINMAKER harkens back to the somber, reserved aesthetic Coppola popularized in THE GODFATHER TRILOGY.  Working again with JACK (1996) cinematographer John Toll, Coppola gives the 35mm film frame a subdued color palette, dealing mainly in earth tones, deep shadows, and an overall blue/green color cast.  The reserved camerawork favors wide compositions, enhanced by the use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  Tone-wise, the film looks dead serious, but Coppola finds plenty of opportunity to inject natural, subtle comedy to help lighten the mood.

Music is provided by legendary composer Elmer Bernstein, who uses the film’s Memphis setting as inspiration for a blues-y, jazzy orchestral sound similar to David Shire’s work on THE CONVERSATION (1974).  As such, the score doesn’t carry the portentous weight that one might expect from a courtroom drama.  Instead, it bops along to the riffs of a church organ and other iconic Memphis sounds.  It’s an unexpected choice, but goes a long way towards establishing a unique, local flavor to the film and gives us a better view into the mindsets of its characters through their environment.

THE RAINMAKER doesn’t show a great deal of growth on Coppola’s part, but that’s to be expected for a middle-aged filmmaker with multiple masterpieces under his belt.  With this film, Coppola is treading well within his wheelhouse, but he’s not complacently resting on his laurels, either.  As his last big studio film so far, and his last film of the 20th century, Coppola has crafted a fine, respectable drama with a distinct character.  It may become increasingly forgotten as time goes by, but the work speaks for itself. It’ll hold up in the court of public opinion where so many of its bigger, mainstream contemporaries will fall flat.  In the long run, that’s the only verdict that matters.

THE RAINMAKER is currently available on standard definition DVD from Paramount.


Produced by: Michael Douglas, Fred Fuchs, Steven Reuther

Written by: Francis Ford Coppola

Director of Photography: John Toll

Production Designer: Howard Cummings

Edited by: Barry Malkin

Original music by: Elmer Bernstein