Suspense, shadows, mystery, and a quest to get to the truth at great cost: these are but a few of the ingredients that director Alan J. Pakula stirs into his 1993 thriller, The Pelican Brief, starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts, two great performers in roles that aren’t flashy, but (mostly) believable people trapped in an extraordinary situation.
The Pelican Brief takes it’s time to set the tone and story in motion. But once the gears of the characters and story are wound up, the film runs like a finely tuned machine. In particular, the mood of the movie is very well drawn. Pakula, who also directed the masterpiece, All The President’s Men (1976), knows his way around this kind of paranoid, political, “the conspiracy is real!” subject matter and deftly establishes a world of corruption and those who seek to uncover it.
Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) is an idealistic law student at Tulane University in New Orleans who is thrust into a world beyond her control when she devises a theory about the murders of two Supreme Court Justices. Her professor/lover reads it; thinks it is far- fetched, but possible, and hands it to a friend at the FBI. From there, all bets are off. The bodies start dropping and the mystery keeps building as Darby runs for her life and gets help from investigative reporter Gray Grantham (great name!), who is fearless in his pursuit of the truth. Denzel Washington plays Grantham with a quiet intensity and also has good chemistry with Julia Roberts. This romantic tension adds emotional heft to the film and, by turns, lightens and deepens the shadows of mystery, danger, and intrigue that surround these two as they fight to get to the truth, and if possible, survive.
Rating: *** (out of ****): Good