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Film / The Pelican Brief

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The Pelican Brief is a 1993 thriller film directed by Alan J. Pakula, starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. It is based on the John Grisham novel published the year before.

The film is about a law student named Darby Shaw (Roberts) who writes a speculative brief regarding the assassinations of two Supreme Court justices. After showing it to her mentor/lover and his friend, they end up getting killed and she goes on the run. Darby seeks help from a newspaper reporter named Gray Grantham (Washington), and together the two set out to prove the brief correct.

Tropes seen in this film include:

  • Adaptation Dye-Job/Dye or Die: Averted. Darby wears wigs in the movie, whereas in the book, she repeatedly cuts and colors her hair to disguise her appearance. Probably to exploit Julia Roberts' then-famous red hair.
  • The Alcoholic: Thomas is shown day-drinking a fairly tall glass of straight liquor at home while Darby questions him about his returning to work, as well as how his drinking may affect his depression. Just moments before his death he is getting obnoxiously wasted in public and attempting to drive drunk.
  • Amoral Attorney: Par for the course in a John Grisham story. An evil law firm not unlike one in another Grisham work factors in as minions to the Big Bad.
  • The Big Easy: Several scenes were shot at typical filming locations in New Orleans, mostly in and around the French Quarter and Bourbon Street.
  • Car Bomb: How the villains intend to kill Darby—but get her boyfriend instead. Also how they try to kill her and Gray in the film. Luckily, when Gray tries to start the car, Darby recognizes the sound of the faltering engine from the first incident and is able to stop him.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: The Big Bad is revealed by the eponymous brief to be an oil baron hoping to influence the court in a pending appeal of an environmental lawsuit by means of an awful lot of murder.
  • Cover Identity Anomaly: Averted. When posing as the widow of the murdered Whistle-blower lawyer, Garcia, in order to get into the safety deposit box where Garcia stashed his video testimonial, Darby is asked the widow and her husband's name, date of birth, and social security numbers. She rattles off all of them instantly except the husband's social security number, which she has written down and passes over to the bank clerk. The last is justified by very few people, even spouses, knowing anyone's social security number but their own.
  • Disposable Woman: gender-flipped. Darby's law professor boyfriend gets killed off, kicking off her involvement in the storyline. Aside from her remembering the sound of the faulty ignition, he has no other impact on the movie.
  • False Rape Accusation: Fleeing from one of the hitmen, Darby runs into a group of men and screams to them that he's trying to rape her. This is explicitly said in the novel, whereas in the movie, she merely pleads for help. In both mediums, they beat the guy up.
  • Follow That Car: Gray tries to do this in the film, only to have the cab he intended to get into drive off without him (possibly spooked by the sight of a black man in a hoodie). Then it's inverted later in the film when he does get a cab, yet quickly realizes he's the one being followed.
  • The Ghost: In the movie, Victor Mattiece is mentioned a lot, but only shows up in a black and white newspaper photograph.
  • Greed: Faced with the question of why somebody would want to assassinate two Supreme Court justices with very dissimilar judicial philosophies, Darby decides to look for a more mundane motivation behind the killings. She supposes (correctly) in her brief that the killings were simply about money/power. The justices were killed because both had a history of ruling against business to protect the environment, and likely would have ruled against Victor Mattiece’s efforts to drill Louisiana crude oil at the expense of a federal nature preserve home to an endangered species of pelican. Mattiece has to kill the Supreme Court Justices now, rather than waiting for the two oldest to die off naturally, because by that time another President could be in the White House - one who wasn't friendly with Mattiece or held similar positions on the environment.
  • He Knows Too Much: The bad guys are out to kill Darby (and later, Gray along with her) when her legal brief pinpoints the precise reason why the two Supreme Court Justices were murdered and assume she figured out their plan.
    • Gray's informant Garcia also.
  • Hello, Attorney!: Or law student, in Darby's case.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard/Laser-Guided Karma: After failing to kill Darby with another Car Bomb, in the film the villain tries to run her down in his own car. . .and crashes into the one he rigged to explode. KABOOM.
  • I Never Told You My Name: When Gray slips up and asks his informant "Garcia" if the other lawyers at his firm are giving him a hard time, Garcia flips out and asks how he could have known that he worked at a law firm as he never told him. Gray hurriedly (and truthfully) assures him that it was just an educated guess based on the things that Garcia has already told him, but it's too late—the already nervous Garcia is even more spooked and cuts off contact.
  • Imminent Danger Clue: The sound the starter makes before the car bomb goes off. Darby heard it when her teacher/lover was killed, and hearing it again prevents her and Gray from falling victim to another one.
  • It's Always Mardi Gras in New Orleans: Darcy flees from a would-be killer into a carnival-type celebration. It pays off—she not only loses him in the large crowd, the amount of people around deters him from trying to harm her.
  • Likes Older Men: Darby is sleeping with her much older, yet wise and ruggedly attractive professor Thomas Callahan.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: By the time Grantham and Darby track him down, Curtis Morgan has already been murdered by the conspiracy and his death passed off as a mugging.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: Investigation into the assassination of an environmentalist attorney -> pointing out a (purely conjectural) connection between this assassination and the death of two judges who agreed with him in a civil case to prevent drilling in a protected land -> murderous conspiracy by an oil magnate to get oil by hook or by crook, with allies all the way up to the Director of the FBI and the President of the United States.
  • President Evil: The President orders the death of Shaw because she accidentally connected Mattiece to the murders of the judges, and Mattiece is connected to him.
  • Race Lift: Gray is white in the book and black in the movie.
  • Relationship Upgrade: Inverted. Darby and Gray's relationship remains platonic, rather than the Riding into the Sunset ending of the book.
  • Revealing Cover-Up: The brief in question was pure conjecture, 100% free of substantiating proof, before the villains heard of it and tried to have her killed to hush it up. Even Darby didn't really believe it, it was just a fun paper note  and had the conspiracy just ignored it, it would have faded away. The attempts on her life make Darby realize she's actually onto something.
  • Safety in Muggles: As stated in the "Mardi Gras" post.
  • Shout-Out: When Gray and Darby meet with the FBI men, Director Voyles says "So you're the little lady who started this great brouhaha." Voyles is paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln greeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." Darby Deadpan Snarks "I think you have me confused with a friend of the president."
  • Teacher/Student Romance: Darby and her College Law teacher. It's what gets him killed in the first place.
  • Waving Signs Around: Both the novel and the film open with people waving signs around saying stuff like "Death to Rosenberg," "Retire Rosenberg," and "Cut off the oxygen," the last of those being Rosenberg's favorite. There's another protest shown near the film's end, this one concerning gun rights.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Gray Grantham prints the story and becomes a household name. Victor Mattice is indicted for the assassinations. The POTUS goes down for having ordered the FBI off the case. However, Darby Shaw instead chooses to flee the country to an unspecified location - which gives rise to a conspiracy theory that she never existed at all, and is merely a pseudonym for all of Grantham's sources; that he wrote the Brief.
    Interviewer: Okay Gray, you know that in view of all this, you know that there's a lot of speculation that this woman is a figment of your imagination. That you created her, from a lot of different sources. Just as there are people who believe there was no Deep Throat, there are those who believe that there is no Darby Shaw. In other words, she's just too good to be true.
    Gray Grantham: She almost is.