Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. For April, we revisit both the game-changing hits and low point misses of Francis Ford Coppola. Read the rest of our coverage here.
If you were looking at a catalog of Francis Ford Coppola’s films, The Rainmaker probably wouldn’t stand out next to widely beloved pictures like The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, but it’s a rare gem of a movie that sadly often gets overlooked. A straightforward legal drama that feels more like a hardboiled detective story, The Rainmaker might feel more Raymond Chandler than John Grisham. Coppola himself adapted the screenplay after picking up a copy of Grisham’s novel in the airport, tapping Apocalypse Now writer Michael Herr to assist in writing Rudy Baylor's (Matt Damon) running narration.
Set in Memphis, Tennessee, the film has a truly lived-in feel to it. Barring a few rare exceptions, every single set in this movie is cramped, grimy, and falling into disrepair. There is nothing glamorous or flashy to look at, purposefully letting the performances do the bulk of the heavy lifting. While it might lack flash, Coppola’s talent for stacking casts with powerhouse actors is no better than it is here, with Damon taking the lead as the inexperienced lawyer-in-training with Danny Devito serving as Rudy’s partner, Deck Shifflet, an unabashed ambulance chaser with more of a respect for the idea of the law, rather than the letter of it. Deck’s tireless energy and sharp mind are well-matched with Rudy’s genteel politeness and affinity for social justice.
Fresh out of law school, Rudy is taken on by J. Lyman “Bruiser” Stone, played with a slick, sleazy charm by Mickey Rourke. Rudy has brought two cases with him from his days in the legal clinic: estate planning for an elderly widow, Miss Birdie (Hollywood royalty Theresa Wright) and impoverished mother Dot (Mary Kay Place), who only wants her insurance company to pay for her son’s bone marrow transplant. A third plot is added when Bruiser sends Rudy to the hospital to “sign up” battered wife Kelly Riker (Claire Danes). While the bulk of the action revolves around Dot’s case against Great Benefit Insurance, Birdie and Kelly’s cases are woven into the narrative so skillfully you soon forget they’re three separate cases.
Is it the David and Goliath premise that makes The Rainmaker so satisfying? Or is it that the Goliath in question is an insurance company that, when exposed by troubled whistleblower Jackie Lemancyzk (Virginia Madsen) turns out to be little more than an elaborate Ponzi scheme? Either way, it’s popcorn viewing at its finest. Watching this movie in 2021, it’s hard to believe that it was filmed during the Clinton administration, long before Obamacare turned everyone’s pompous uncles into medical and financial experts at Thanksgiving dinner.
While The Rainmaker remains ahead of its time—both from a story and filmmaking perspective—it’s the stellar performances from the cast that make this quiet little film such a rewarding watch.
As smart as Rudy is, his inexperience is not overlooked by the script. He’s all but run out on a rail by cranky Judge Hale (Dean Stockwell) until Jon Voight’s wily defense attorney Leo Drummond steps in. “Vouched for by a scoundrel and sworn in by a fool,” Rudy’s voiceover tells us that his calm, respectful presence is hiding a savvy mind with a nose for bullshit. He not only sees through Drummond but has the wherewithal to pull an impressive prank on the opposition, to hilarious effect.
Damon and Voight were—at this point in their careers—the perfect people to play these two opposing sides of law & order. Damon was still a new face on the screen while Voight was already well on the path of becoming the "lovable" old grandpa he is today (Please do not take this comment seriously). Drummond looks down on Rudy, not just because he’s green, but because he’s poor, and hasn’t yet figured out that seeing justice done isn’t the point, the point is winning. For men like Drummond, the win is all there is. Rudy, for his part, despises the empty suit that Drummond is, disillusionment walking around in Italian loafers. But worse than that, Rudy could see Drummond’s flash and fire in himself, a notion that spoils the whole concept of practicing law for him.
While The Rainmaker remains ahead of its time—both from a story and filmmaking perspective—it’s the stellar performances from the cast that make this quiet little film such a rewarding watch. Danes’ Kelly shines with a calm vulnerability that appeals to Rudy, himself a child from an abusive home. Danny Glover gives a brilliant turn as the presiding judge (a veteran of the civil rights era with a particular distaste for insurance companies). But the whole heart of the movie is Damon’s performance as Rudy, something that, looking back through his career, is unique and special. Good Will Hunting would premiere later that year, making Damon a household name, but Rudy Baylor is not a performance that should be overlooked among his other credits.
Out of all of the adapted Grisham works, The Rainmaker is the one that’s held up best in the the 24 years since it was made. I mean, when was the last time anyone thought about The Firm or The Pelican Brief?