The Whole Truth is a curiosity to me, I have to say. The courtroom drama, which stars Keanu Reeves (John Wick, The Matrix), Jim Belushi, Renee Zellweger, Gabriel Basso, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Dr. Who, and the San Junipero episode of Black Mirror, season 3), was directed by Courtney Hunt, whose sole movie to this point, Frozen River, garnered her an Academy nom for best original screenplay in 2008, and written by Hollywood veteran Nicholas Kazan, an Academy nominee in his own right for 1990’s Reversal of Fortune. There are a number of reasons why this movie failed to engage me, the least of which was a super-late night viewing.
The movie, set in present day Louisiana, tells the story of Richard Ramsey, a Southern lawyer played by Reeves, defending the life of a teenager (Basso) accused of killing his wealthy, but abusive father, Boone, played by Jim Belushi. In the mix, as Boone’s wife Loretta, is a completely unrecognizable Renee Zellweger. Ramsey’s job is compounded by the fact his client refuses to talk to him. Through various flashbacks that chronicle the abuse suffered by Loretta at the hands of Boone, the trial evolves from a not guilty defence to a justifiable homicide defence. Mbatha-Raw appears early in Act 2 as a young lawyer, recently fired from another firm, to join Ramsey’s one-man defence team.
As I said, the movie just didn’t grab me early on, but not exactly at the beginning. The one thing I did like about this movie was that it starts in the courtroom on the actual case, an unusual opening for a film of this kind. From To Kill A Mockingbird to A Few Good Men, the formula for a courtroom drama is to spend Act 1 getting to know the protagonist’s life, how they’re perfectly suited for the case – or not,as the case may be – how daunting and impossible to win this particular case is, etc, etc. Act 2 is generally spent in exploratory mode with the protagonist, usually solo, or part of a two-person team, discovering that as impossible as the case seemed to be from the get go, new evidence uncovered makes it EVEN MORE IMPOSSIBLE TO WIN. I’m generalizing here, but c’mon, you know what I’m talking about.
The Whole Truth appears to jump into the movie at the beginning of Act 2. We don’t really know who Ramsey is, what his strengths and weaknesses are, who the defendant is … very few details are supplied here, which is at once an interesting start, but also very deficient. I was a huge fan of Law & Order (classic L&H, not its spinoffs), and The Whole Truth opens as if you’ve missed the first half hour of that show. My feeling changed quickly from one of interest to something more resembling bafflement as Act 1 wore on and very few character details were given. Everything is very scant and spare, but not to the movie’s betterment.
It certainly isn’t enhanced any by the choice of Reeves as Ramsey – people might have a soft spot for the guy, but his flat delivery isn’t aging well at all, and whatever acting talent he possessed at the peak of his career, there’s not a lot of on display in this movie. He’s not bad here, just completely uninteresting, and is either unable or unwilling to commit to inhabiting a character. His performance is mostly indicative of the entire production, actually. Reportedly, Daniel Craig previously accepted the role, but left the movie right before it was due to go into production. He might have livened it up a little, but not much. Hunt directs the feature with all the flair and panache of someone using a point and shoot to take snapshots at a family gathering, unable to illicit a strong performance from anyone, or wring much drama from what is a classically tense genre. Everything is just so flat and mediocre.
Hunt isn’t entirely to blame, though – Kazan’s script is weak and superficial. Instead of a twisty who-really-did-it thriller, Ramsey’s tactic is to basically throw the trial until the last minute when he hopes he can produce a stunning hail mary. Sure, his hands are tied by his defendant’s choice to remain silent, but I kept waiting for that big moment where Ramsey would turn the tables on a witness, but only the tiniest of victories are won, and don’t make much of a dent. Even the flashbacks are not written in such a way as to provide the audience with a dilemma – Boone is a major dick to literally EVERYONE, from threatening friends, humiliating his wife in public – even raping her on the balcony of their splendid Southern home at one point. It’s clear that someone was going to kill this guy, so where’s the drama if you’re already on the side of the killer? No attempt is made to portray the flashbacks as anything other than what they are. No such thing as an “unreliable narrator” in this movie, folks.
Mbatha-Raw’s inclusion in the movie is something I’m still scratching my head at. Her character does almost nothing other than make one female witness uncomfortable with some questions that could be called “probing” in only the most charitable way possible, and to pad the running time with mostly pointless, static scenes of dialogue between she and Ramsey. You could easily take out all of her scenes and the movie would remain essentially unchanged. It’s hard to fathom Kazan’s intent with this character. Zellweger, in that period from three years ago when almost nobody could recognize her facially, is less flat, but it’s a thankless role that doesn’t develop or deepen, and mostly just peters out by the end.
By the time the verdict is read, I was wondering if the jury had been watching a different trial. It’s all done and over so quickly with very few compelling witnesses called up – but then we move to the big twist! It’s clear from watching this that the twist was likely the first idea that came to Kazan, because it feels stapled on. I can totally envision Kazan turning in a second draft with blue pages inserted for this part, because it comes out of nowhere. It’s clumsy, and feels like it belongs in a different movie so jarring is the content. And when I say jarring, don’t take that to mean it’s exciting or crazy, or even all that interesting, just that it’s a huge plot curve that is almost not seeded at all in the preceding 80 minutes. Far from being the work of a veteran, it feels like something knocked out by a rank amateur for competition season. It’s not good enough for a feature, but then, nothing else in the movie really is either. When it comes to Southern courtroom dramas, it’s less To Kill A Mockingbird, and more like Matlock: The Motion Picture.
© Andrew Hope 2017
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