A hot-shot lawyer gets his dream job, but when “the firm” turns out to be a mafia front, he learns a tough lesson in the perils of greed.
Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) graduates top of his Harvard Law class and is immediately in demand with all the top firms.
He turns them all down for one that outbids his highest salary offer by 20%, then throws in a Mercedes, mortgage and country club membership to boot.
For McDeere, who grew up poor, it’s too tantalising to turn down. But by following the money, he inadvertently hitches himself to The Mob…
The big theme: the love of money
When Mitch McDeere graduates from law school he follows an inevitable path: he trades his skills for a salary.
There’s nothing uncommon about either this or his love of big money. Just think how many books and films end with the hero or heroine becoming suddenly and wildly wealthy, or the way the media pays rapt attention to wealthy celebs and business folk.
McDeere gets his ‘happy ending’ at the start of the film – when he’s courted by America’s top law firms.
The deal he negotiates with Bendini, Lambert and Locke is impressive: a six-figure salary plus a car and a house. However, it’s wildly OTT and – as wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) reminds him – unnecessary.
In choosing money over credibility and principles, McDeere is fast-tracked into a nightmare when he discovers his firm deals in Mafia money.
Is Mitch the good guy?
If it sounds as though McDeere gets his just desserts as a slippery tax lawyer, he kind of does. However, the film also reveals that McDeere has grown up in poverty, and is desperate to be free of it.
This is how Bendini and partners snare Mitch, and presumably why they pick him in the first place: they use his fear of poverty to buy his loyalty.
Note how young woman they pay to seduce Mitch feeds him a similar story of poverty and powerlessness. That’s his weak spot, and in both cases the end result is the same: entrapment.
It’s worth adding that while greed / aspiration is McDeere’s downfall, his hard-knock background is how we accept him as an underdog – even when he’s unfaithful.
The Firm explores the many faces of greed in a few ways:
- McDeere’s mentor, Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman), does what he wants beyond the limits of satiety and propriety, from drinking at lunch to sleeping around. Both prove to be his undoing
- The firm’s downfall lies in its practice of routinely over-charging clients
- Through Sonny Capps we hear how the firm’s clients look for ways to not pay tax, or to launder dirty money.
But while the film has a lot to say about greed, it’s kind of complicated – even hypocritical – with it. That’s because of the tax avoidance.
Tax avoidance: the blind spot
The Firm touched on tax avoidance years before the Panama Papers blew the lid on offshore loopholes. For McDeere, though, while Mafia = bad, tax avoidance = kinda OK.
When he first meets Avery, Mitch asks how far he should bend the law. Avery tells him “as far as you can without breaking it”.
McDeere then gets to work helping wealthy people hide their money from the State (and social good). That’s why the film is partly set in the Cayman Islands, a noted tax haven.
Actually, loads of countries act as tax havens to wealthy non-residents, including England and Ireland.
Isn’t it shocking that the film, its characters and even us, the audience, had little reaction or revulsion to the tax practices described in The Firm?
Even now, we know of, yet tolerate, tax avoidance schemes used by the world’s largest corporations. We’ve come to accept this as the way the world works.
For McDeere and those like him, tax avoidance – if not entirely ethical – is legal, excusable … and highly lucrative.
What does Mitch learn from the Mafia?
By the end of the film, McDeere has moved from ignorance to understanding:
- Knowledge about what the firm really is (and how to escape from it)
- Greater appreciation for the law. He tells FBI agent Wayne Tarrance (Ed Harris): “you actually made me think about the law. I managed to go through three years of law school without doing that.”
- He stops denying the existence of his jail-bird brother, then starts fighting for his release. Rather than working for privileged clients, McDeere helps those who really need a hand.
Most importantly, Mitch gains integrity.
He first battles with this when Tarrance asks him to break client-attorney confidentiality, something that would get McDeere disbarred.
Later, Mitch has a similar revelation to John Proctor in The Crucible: one’s name, reputation, and identity should be cherished, not traded for wealth or ease.
This is why McDeere turns down a life in witness protection, and seeks to be free not just of his firm, but of the FBI.
McDeere also comes to learn what his wife already knows: wealth is an enabler but doesn’t by itself bring satisfaction, fulfilment … or morals.
In real life, high interest rates, exploitation and inequality traps people in debt. In The Firm, literal entrapment by a corrupt corporation kills those who stand in the way of profits.
Ultimately the McDeeres choose a different path, one that takes them back to Boston, to a small life rich with family rather than finances.
The Firm (1993), directed by Sydney Pollack
What to read or watch next
- A Few Good Men (Tom Cruise plays a lawyer)
- The Wolf of Wall Street, Margin Call (corporations bending – and breaking – the rules)
- Wall Street (greed)
- The Devil’s Advocate (law, dark forces)
- Goodfellas, Casino (the Mob)