Friday, December 19, 2008

Film Review--The Juror

The Juror
directed by Brian Gibson
written by Ted Talley
based on the novel by George Dawes Green
starring Demi Moore, Alec Baldwin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Heche, James Gandolfini, Tony Lo Bianco, Michael Constantine, Matt Craven, Michael Rispoli

Despite occasional slips into stark melodrama, this film manages to express with a modicum restraint the lengths that a mother will go to in order to protect her son.

A mob hit has left a gangster and his grandson exceedingly dead. The perpetrator is revealed through his blank, distracted eyes. We meet a woman named Annie Laird (Moore) and her son Oliver (Gordon-Levitt). Annie is a sculptor who constructs elaborate panoramas that she conceals in wooden crates. It’s a style that is directly linked to her childhood and as the film opens she is starting to receive notice for her work. She meets a man who calls himself Mark Cordell (Baldwin) after he has purchased three of her pieces in exchange for a payment of $12,000. Straight away we know this man isn’t all he says he is. Again, it’s all in Baldwin’s eyes so his later reveal as the man who orchestrated the hit comes as no surprise. Perhaps the film would have retained more tension if we weren’t made privy through his eyes of the character’s deceitfulness. It’s not clear if we are supposed to trust Mark at first but such a scenario is decimated by the way Mark presents himself. As it stands he is marked from the outset as a potentially dangerous man capable of committing great acts of mayhem.

Demi Moore plays the frantic, terrified victim quite effectively. Much of this film, especially early on, showcases Annie’s terror coupled with a sense of helplessness. So, when she is called for Jury duty and accepts, against Judge Weitzel’s (Constantine) advice, the stage is set for a fairly engrossing drama that pits the Teacher (Cordell’s pet mafia name) against Annie as she scrambles desperately to save her son. The Teacher forces Annie to convince the rest of the jury to acquit Louie Baffano (Lo Bianco) who has been accused of ordering the hit. Annie succeeds and the rest of the film is a cat and mouse game that is occasionally successful at creating moments where the audience experiences genuine feelings of antipathy for the Teacher and his machinations.

The Teacher is quite cruel and megalomaniacal. He’s also exceedingly likable which is a direct result of how Baldwin plays him. There is a sniveling quality to the Teacher and his behavior strikes one as consistent with a man who is suffering a serious psychopathology. He’s funny, good natured, and even kind but these qualities mask a man who perhaps is suffering the lack of a conscience. He is capable of ghastly acts against children without hardly considering the consequences. Still he remains charming and affable regardless of what atrocity he is committing. Baldwin does seem to smirk quite which seems to accentuate his character’s duplicity.

The Teacher takes a liking to Annie and she reciprocates. They play lovey for a bit and then he springs his plan on her. He’s quite aggressive and convincing so Annie has no choice but to act on his commands. This is when Demi Moore shines as Annie tenaciously takes over the jury room and lays down the law using a logical argument that soon sees the other jurors eating out of her hand. There’s something quite lovely about watching people cave in to pressure one by one and this film allows this pleasure quite succinctly. However this is just the beginning of the game as the Teacher continues to cast his diabolical spell over Annie and her loved ones.

Anne Heche plays the bubbly best friend named Juliet. She’s a doctor who is a bit loose and she is in the film to provide a bit of levity in contrast to the mostly serious Annie. Juliet is a bit rambunctious and more daring than Annie. She’s what is unfortunately labeled as a free spirit. Heche does a fine job conveying her character’s dual role as intense medical practitioner and carefree woman of few distractions. Her plight isn’t terribly pleasant but it is enjoyable to see her all wacked out on pills and splaying herself all about in what passes for a love scene.

The idea of a madman chasing a pretty thing or a child is certainly not new. “Night of the Hunter” comes immediately to mind and of course that film is infinitely more terrifying than this one could ever hope to be. Indeed, such scenarios are cheaply made and most readily forgettable but the performances in this film elevate it above the pedestrian. The principal actors do their jobs and for the most part there is a nominal amount of tension to play around with here. But in the end one doesn’t necessarily feel anything whatsoever about the boy or his mother so the denouement of this film doesn’t carry very much weight. The Teacher is the more fascinating character as all “bad” men are in these things. He’s the one who has devised a plan to satisfy his wants and the fact that it comes at the expense of the heroine and her child matters not.

James Gandolfini plays Eddie, a mobster who turns out to be the most complex character in the film. It’s all in his gestures and ease of movement. He’s languid and soft spoken. He’s the antithesis of the Teacher because it’s impossible to believe him capable of chasing down a kid for his own edification. He’s calm and direct and perfectly at ease with himself. There are no histrionics, no insatiable need to move beyond his station. It’s clear he’s done some horrible things in his time but there’s a hint of remorse around his eyes whenever he speaks. His eyes are slightly sad and the reveal him to be a man who has experience considerable regret.

Overall, this is a well structured film that manages to create an intriguing dynamic between too characters diametrically opposed to each other. The acting is consistently expressive and the performers manage to make this into something more than what it truly deserves to be. It’s trite to see a film where a psycho runs through all barriers to achieve a special prize. This film is executed well enough but it doesn’t quite deliver a satisfactory payoff in the end. Instead, we are left with a vague sensation that this film has provided a decent ninety minutes of throwaway entertainment. It’s not necessarily something worth remembering but it does contain a bit of psychological anguish which is always worth investigating if only for a short while.

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