We all make mistakes, and in recent years, Matthew McConaughey has made his fair share.

Maybe his agent thought he should appeal more to his fan base (you know… women) by doing some light, fluffy romantic comedies. Maybe he was tired of heavier roles (A Time to Kill, Amistad, U-571) and just wanted to have a little fun. Whatever the thinking, let’s just be glad he got over it.

In The Lincoln Lawyer, he flat-out gives the best performance of his 20-year career. It’s as raw, gritty, and no-holds-barred as anything he’s done, and it helps make the movie one of the most entertaining of the first part of the year.

McConaughey is Mick Haller, a slick-as-grease defense attorney hired by Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a wealthy young man accused of raping and severely beating a prostitute. Roulet claims he’s innocent and has a plausible story to bolster his account of the events, and Haller, who’s never met a stack of cash (aboveboard or otherwise) he didn’t like, takes the case.

Aided by his trusty investigator Frank (William H. Macy), Haller begins putting the pieces together himself, and even connects the dots to a prior, eerily similar case. The more Haller finds out, the deeper he gets, even to the point of putting his life, his family, and his career at stake.

Based on the best-selling novel by Michael Connelly, The Lincoln Lawyer could have ended up being just another throwaway Grisham-esque crime/court drama, but thanks to winning performances all around, a tight screenplay by John Romano (Nights in Rodanthe), and solid direction by Brad Furman, who’s helming his first big-budget feature, it works… big-time.

There are more twists and turns in this thing than there are on Lombard Street. And just when you think you’ve seen every conceivable plot for a legal thriller, The Lincoln Lawyer will surprise you early and often (unless, of course, you’ve read the book… but even then you’ll still be entertained.)

Even more than the plot and script, it’s McConaughey’s performance that makes this such a success. Sure, he’s surrounded by a stellar cast, including Macy, Marisa Tomei, Josh Lucas, Frances Fisher, Bryan Cranston, and John Leguizamo, but he actually stands on his own here with a wrenching, brutally-honest performance.

And Kate Hudson’s nowhere to be found. Coincidence?

4/5 stars