This engaging courtroom drama aces the trick of grounding its ludicrousness in a convincing facsimile of reality.
Bro-ish, blank-slate lawyer Richard (Keanu Reeves) finds himself defending a teenager (Gabriel Basso) charged with patricide; the victim, a boorish millionaire (Jim Belushi) named Boone, appears to be a friend of Richard’s, though the relationship seems purposely half-sketched, as if our protagonist is trying to block out its specifics. Richard’s general disorientation — and the accused’s refusal to speak a word to anyone, even his lawyer or his mother (Renée Zellweger) — suggests that there are layers of deception to work through and that the story will be dutifully twisty.
But director Courtney Hunt and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan smartly strip this pulp exercise of the theatrical excess so common to courthouse thrillers. Here, the trial unfolds in the drab, bureaucratic spaces of actual legal proceedings, a world of silences, shabby suits, and cardboard file boxes. Nobody dabs sweat off a forehead, and slanting sunlight never butters up the grind of justice.
The film concentrates on the trial itself, flashing back to illustrate witness testimony, leaving you to puzzle over whether these glimpses of Boone in life and death are subjective or not. Reeves acquits himself admirably in a tricky role, one that demands he not reveal much of who Richard actually is. (He updates us on his trial strategy in voiceover.) He comes across as something like the best-looking guy from your high school grown up into a minor, not especially gifted lawyer. Zellweger and Basso get to act out on-the-stand breakdowns, the closest the movies today offer to soliloquies. Both scenes are hard to believe, but with so much strong buildup my objections got overruled.
The movie’s being dumped by Lions Gate on demand and into a handful of theaters, but it’s much more involving than most of this year’s studio dramas, and certainly smarter and more involving than The Girl on the Train or The Accountant.
The Whole Truth
Directed by Courtney Hunt
Opens October 21, IFC Center
Available on demand