3 Great Movies About the Legal System You May Have Missed — Every Movie Has a Lesson

by Lewis Robinson

When you think about movies in which challenging dynamics of the legal system are a central theme, some classic literary adaptations probably come to mind. If you’ve enjoyed widely known films such as To Kill a Mockingbird or 12 Angry Men, a few hidden gems from the 80s and 90s may capture your interest.

Guilty As Sin (1993)

Typically, a movie that starts off with someone looking for legal assistance involves an extremely egregious crime. A person doesn’t seek out counsel for the important and practical reasons that everyday people do such as finding out how to get out of a timeshare or initiating a claim against a contractor. Instead, characters are desperate for legal help because they stand accused of a heinous crime.

Guilty As Sin has a diabolical defendant who pursues his choice of counsel aggressively. Don Johnson portrays this lady-killer who allegedly kills his wife. His chosen counsel, a young and beautiful but hard-nosed trial attorney, believes his account of what really happened but then has her doubts.

The movie examines some of the moral complexities that defense attorneys sometimes have to reconcile and what they have to do when a representation challenges their moral compass. In the tradition of quintessential 90s legal thrillers, the romantic element intensifies its appeal to audiences while underscoring the tension in the attorney-client relationship.

Jagged Edge (1985)

Jagged Edge is another fantastic thriller in which the protagonist is a defense attorney played by Glen Close. She wholeheartedly believes the handsome and charming criminal defendant who she is representing is innocent of murdering his wife. However, the more that Close learns about her client’s womanizing ways and just how much he benefited financially from his wife’s death, the more she begins to doubt his innocence. She thoroughly regrets representing him but not as much as she regrets falling for him.

The movie calls attention to the investigative elements that go into charging someone with murder. In scenarios where the husband of a murder victim is a person of interest if not the prime suspect, law enforcement’s work may be heavily biased. Juries are likewise biased against husbands on trial, and their counsel have an extremely challenging hurdle to overcome in persuading the trier of fact about their clients’ innocence.

Jagged Edge precedes the late 80s and early 90s legal thriller subgenre and has some distinct film noir qualities. Nevertheless, many of its major thematic elements resonate in some of the most notable installations of that era including Guilty As Sin as well as Criminal Law.

The Devil’s Advocate (1997)

One of the most noteworthy 90s thrillers examining the moral implications of working within the criminal justice system is The Devil’s Advocate. Keanau Reeves plays a Gainesville defense attorney who has an undefeated trial record representing defendants charged with major crimes. He is scouted out by a prominent New York firm in which the principal partner offers him exceptional compensation to join the firm. Al Pacino gives a memorable performance as the senior partner who appears to express extraordinary abilities. He repeatedly pontificates to Reeves about man’s true nature and the demands of the legal profession. Little by little, Reeves comes to suspect that his new boss is in fact the devil incarnate leading him to damnation.

The supernatural twists and philosophical discourse that steer the movie keep the audience’s attention thoroughly engaged. While really sinking into Devil’s Advocate requires some considerable suspension of disbelief, it offers some valid perspective into how lawyers can serve the judicial process without compromising their own sense of right or wrong. It also attempts to put the seven deadly sins into a modern adjudicatory context. It cautions audiences that even if people don’t necessarily fear judgment from a higher power, they must maintain the  ability to pass judgment on themselves or risk losing their identities and possibly their souls.     


Next time you’re feeling like watching a legal thriller, choose one of these overlooked movie night picks. A legal scholar may object to some of the content, but they’re thoroughly entertaining thematically interesting.

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