Few writers can subvert audience expectations to riveting effect. In this instance, The incomparable Billy Wilder adapts a stage play by The famed Agatha Christie for the screen. The pairing produces an impressive blend of humor and suspense. In fact, upon its release, many people mistook it for one of Hitchcock’s. I can see why– I was on the edge of my seat!
Without giving too much away, I can tell you that an American in England is charged with murder. He seeks the help of a solicitor, who in turn requests the counsel of a seasoned barrister, whose doctor has advised against taking on stressful cases. Together, with an entourage of protective staff urging rest, the legal defense team must dodge one bombshell after another before the stress from the case becomes more than the stubborn old barrister’s ticker can handle.
“My dad? He’s… a liar.” “A liar? I’m sure you don’t mean a liar.” “Well, he wears a suit and goes to court and talks to the judge.” “Oh, you mean he’s a lawyer.” In this case, same difference: “Great news! Both my legs are broken so they can’t take me right to jail.”
Max Reede misses his dad, Fletcher even though his mother threw him out for being a self-centered, philandering liar. Max makes a birthday wish that– just for one day– his dad wouldn’t be able to tell a lie. So imagine Fletcher’s surprise when he wakes up one day blurting out even the most uncomfortable truth. “My teacher tells me beauty is on the inside.” “That’s just something ugly people say.” Of course, everything works itself out in the end but not before wreaking havoc on Fletcher’s life, both in and out of court. “Mr. Reede, one more word out of you, and I will hold you in contempt!” “I hold MYSELF in contempt! Why should you be any different?”
If you don’t own a copy, you’ve either forgotten about this movie or have never seen it. This is arguably each lead’s most famous role of their career. And for good reason: when an disparate team of jewel theives vie for their loot, Deception is the rule of law in what amounts to The Bermuda Triangle of relationships. Love and lust notwithstanding, greed and revenge bring out a range of emotions– and even slapstick– in those subjected to the whims of manipulative Wanda, a woman so dynamic, a beloved pet is named after her.
The Western genre, a long-standing movie staple, is characterized by a rough-around-the-edges hero, who musters his steely courage in order to exact vengeance. There’s always a small but hardy village standing tough in the middle of a harsh and desolate landscape. Despite its modern context, this movie does not disappoint; especially since, unlike traditional Westerns, the protagonists have realistic flaws. The stakes are high as two brothers, a divorcee and an ex-con start robbing banks out of desperation to save their family’s dying Texas ranch. Not far behind are a couple of old pros, a ranger and his partner assigned to what was expected to be a small time offense. As the lawbreaking escalates, everyone involved quickly realizes their lives are on the line.
I had the pleasure of watching an advance screening of this pearl at a film festival. Afterwards, a local musician spoke about the making of it. Deep in the Ozarks, lies a population—like a country all its own—sprawled out among the craggy terrain. Fiercely protective of their own, it took years to earn the trust of the community in order to craft a novel based on their way of life.
Most of the supporting cast and extras are locals, and the homes and clothing are indigenous to the area. Lead actress, Jennifer Lawrence (virtually unknown at the time of its release) had to learn to hunt & skin squirrels, to chop firewood and to fight. Her character must find some evidence of her meth cook father, for whom there is an arrest warrant. He’s missing—either in hiding or dead—but “like a dog digging after a Winter’s bone,” as the old Appalachian expression goes, she must find some enough proof to satisfy the authoritys, who are about to seize her family home where she takes care of her ailing mother and two younger siblings.
It isn’t easy to base a movie on a John Grisham book without losing the suspense. Or maybe it is? Upon rediscovery of this legal/ political thriller, I contend it still holds up. Exhibit A: conspiracies. Exhibit B: the many faces of Stanley Tucci. Exhibit C: Denzel Washington. Exhibit D: Julia Roberts. Exhibit E: so many stars before they were super famous (including but nowhere limited to aide to the Prez, who went on to play POTUS and homely neighbor turned glam “Sex and The City” gal pal).
Expect the unexpected in this courtroom dramedy that’s based on a true story; action star, Vin Diesel as a mobster choosing to legally represent himself rather than rat out everyone he knows is no exception. Co-writer/ director, Sidney Lumet’s resume (e.g. “Twelve Angry Men,” “Serpico”) makes him uniquely qualified to tell it. Moreover, it makes his casting decision undeniably instinctive rather than serendipitously meta.