Everybody lies. For Richard Ramsay, a lawyer defending an uncooperative murder suspect in The Whole Truth, this is the only truth. It drives the legal strategy he walks us through, in impassive voiceover narration, in what might have been a tantalizing whodunit about the less-than-gleaming gears of justice but is instead a curiously uninvolving exercise in procedure.
Rather than tightening the screws and getting the blood pumping, director Courtney Hunt allows the viewer ample time to contemplate why Renee Zellweger’s unrecognizability has become politicized, why Keanu Reeves doesn’t do more comedy and why a drama toplined by two marquee names is slipping into theaters, with a simultaneous VOD release, virtually unannounced.
The answer to the last question is the flat melodrama that Hunt has wrung from a screenplay credited to Rafael Jackson. The filmmaker’s second feature, after 2008’s Frozen River, is set and filmed in Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish, near New Orleans. It evokes the region’s clinging humidity, but with none of the urgency or narrative power of the earlier film’s frigid New York setting. Amid the story’s lurid peeks behind showy wealth to domestic horrors and marital secrets, the characters barely come to life. Nerve-pinching musical notes and venetian blind shadows don’t churn up even a modicum of noirish suspense.
Reeves’ motorcycle-driving Ramsay first appears as a grimace behind shades, arriving at the courthouse to defend a high school student in an open-and-shut case of patricide. The murdered man, Boone Lassiter (Jim Belushi), was a hotshot lawyer and Ramsay’s friend. Lassiter’s teenage son, Mike (Gabriel Basso), has confessed to the fatal stabbing, and now leaves Ramsay hamstrung by his refusal to discuss the matter. The attorney is resolute in his belief that trial witnesses are a bunch of lying liars. Punching holes in their stories, however obliquely, is his only option when his client won’t talk. While Mike doodles and Ramsay assassinates the dead man’s character, widow Loretta watches the proceedings in a state of seeming confusion and anxiety, with Zellweger’s performance registering a jittery mix of disillusion, fear and trophy-wife entitlement.
That the judge (Ritchie Montgomery) appreciates a swift trial is duly noted; this is a story of workaday legal mechanics, not lofty jurisprudence. Hunt’s interest in the strategic details of criminal-trial culture gives the film a matter-of-fact verisimilitude, if not a pulse. (The director, who has a law degree, has helmed episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and producer Elon Dershowitz is the son of attorney Alan Dershowitz.) As the movie deconstructs such core aspects of the system as jury selection and attorneys’ theatrical maneuvers — matters handled with flair and intensity in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, to cite an extraordinary recent example — the effect is one of academic interest, not gripping storytelling.
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Lending a bit of oomph is the arrival of Ramsay’s new junior colleague, Janelle Brady (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), just in time to provide helpful optics in the courtroom; she’s what Ramsay calls “mixed-race window dressing.” But Janelle gets a shot in the spotlight, proving her chops with an ingenious cross-examination of a character witness. And, Reeves’ wooden line readings notwithstanding, there are flashes of intriguing tension between him and Mbatha-Raw, a compelling performer who remains underused since her eye-catching turns in Belle and Beyond the Lights. Janelle’s personal baggage, the unhappy facts coolly elicited by her new boss, proves more engrossing than the Lassiters’ sordid saga, which is revealed in eleventh-hour testimony and flashbacks to the villainous Boone’s poisonous interactions with his family.
Everyone is clearly hiding something. But more pressing than the mystery of Mike’s silence and his parents’ toxic relationship is the sense of a missed opportunity that permeates the movie, sapping its final twist of the solar-plexus wallop it should have delivered.
Distributor: Lionsgate Premiere
Production companies: PalmStar Media Capital presents, in association with FilmNation Entertainment and Merced Finance, a Likely Story production, in association with Atlas Entertainment, in association with PalmStar Entertainment, Merced Media Partners, Nechamka Productions
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Renee Zellweger, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Gabriel Basso, Jim Belushi, Jim Klock, Ritchie Montgomery
Director: Courtney Hunt
Screenwriter: Rafael Jackson
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Kevin Frakes, Elon Dershowitz, Raj Brinder Singh
Executive producers: Gideon Tadmor, Eyal Rimmon, Buddy Patrick, Scott Fisher, Jamin O’Brien, Stuart Brown, Vishal Rungta, Nicholas Kazan
Director of photography: Jules O’Loughlin
Production designer: Mara Lepere-Schloop
Costume designer: Abby O’Sullivan
Editor: Kate Williams
Composers: Evgueni and Sascha Galperine
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham
Rated R, 93 minutes