Warner Bros. Pictures | Release Date: December 17, 1993
Generally favorable reviews based on 36 Ratings
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SpangleOct 10, 2017
Directed by Alan J. Pakula, The Pelican Brief is certainly a compelling investigative thriller. This is no surprise, considering Pakula knows his way around conspiracy and investigative thrills, with this on full display in the film.Directed by Alan J. Pakula, The Pelican Brief is certainly a compelling investigative thriller. This is no surprise, considering Pakula knows his way around conspiracy and investigative thrills, with this on full display in the film. Unfortunately, the problems with The Pelican Brief are ones found more in the script and the editing. Overly complicated, contrived, cliche, predictable, and bloated, The Pelican Brief is a film that thrills, compels, and keeps the audience hooked in from beginning to end, but is certainly prone to dragging out the inevitable. We know what will happen in the end, yet the film continues to try to distract from this with additional layers, characters, and encounters, that just seem so forced. If the film could just hone in on and become a trimmed down version of itself, it could have been a great film. Unfortunately, this one was just one editing session away from being excellent.

At the heart of this film is a conspiracy theory. After the assassination of two Supreme Court justices, young law student Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) is intrigued by the murders and tries to assess who could have been involved by looking at similar opinions between the two justices. Showing her results to her lover and Professor Thomas Callahan (Sam Shepard), Shaw's theory - later dubbed the "Pelican brief" - is passed onto the FBI and, from there, Shaw's life collapses all around her. As those implicated close down on her and try to suppress the investigation underway by the FBI, Shaw teams up with reporter Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) to further investigate her brief and bring the allegations to light in an article. A spell-binding thriller, it may be rather cliche but the twists, turns, and general conspiracy element (with a post-Nixon kick to it all) really intrigue rather nicely. It is a film that may be flawed, but one cannot accuse of it not being entertaining or gripping, as the exploits of Darby and Gray as the investigate these deeply influential suspects and run for their lives from the men sent to the kill them tell a believable tale that will you keep you engaged, even when it slips into predictability.

Unfortunately, it is this predictability that does harm the film, especially when the plot instances can feel so contrived. As a film that 140 minutes long, The Pelican Brief is obviously far too long for what it is and much of that length is due to constant plot contrivances. Bumping into undercover hitmen or the wrong men at the wrong time, the two constantly are sent running or into hiding as a means of cheaply providing thrills and delaying the inevitable reveal of what is covered in the brief and its fallout. Further elements of the plot - the aforementioned contrivances - seems to occur just because the film needs it to move the plot ahead and provide tension. Constantly bumping into the same hitmen, killing the hitmen, or possible taking Gray off the story, the plot just runs through cliches, contrivances, and convenient plot elements to try drum up tension and anticipation when its central story is good enough to provide both if it just let it breathe.

That said, one of the best elements of the film is a bit cheesy, but it works so well. After having experienced a car bomb first-hand earlier in the film, Darby is on red alert after getting into a car with Gray. The audience knows there is a bomb in the car, but neither know. Reading off information they just discovered, Darby casually pulls Gray's hand away from starting the car twice, in order for him to be able to pay attention to what she is saying. Tense and slowly building anticipation for whether or not they will figure it out, the final outcome of the scene may be obvious, but Pakula's tricks in eliciting this tension work phenomenally well and create a scene that really stands out as a highlight. A scene in which hitman Khamel (Stanley Tucci) hides in an FBI agent's hotel room closet and slowly opens the door to kill him is similarly tense, demonstrating Pakula's knack for suspense and thrills, utilizing these slowly drawn out moments of tension that allow the scene's suspense to slowly build before the big pay-off.

While the film's predictability is certainly an issue, one element that really holds the film back is certainly how many characters are involved. With a seemingly endless number of indistinguishable slightly balding middle-aged white men in this cast, everybody blends in with one another, as none of the cast are able to really differentiate themselves enough to stand out or become a memorable supporting character. Some folks - the President or editor - are distinguishable to be clear, but far too many of the men tasked with stopping Darby and Gray or handling the investigation for the FBI just seem to blend in with one another.
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