Presumed Innocent (1990)

Directed by Alan J. Pakula

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Presumed Innocent is a sultry, falsely-accused thriller with a whole bunch of attractive ugly people.  It’s the story of a prosecutor, Rusty (Harrison Ford), asked to investigate the brutal murder of a colleague, Carolyn (Greta Scacchi).  It’s not until later that we learn more about Rusty’s relationship with Carolyn, when Rusty’s wife Barbara (Bonnie Bedelia) bluntly says, “There are one hundred and fifty lawyers down there. Couldn’t they find someone who didn’t fuck her to handle the case?”

This is a courtroom drama that unfolds mostly how you expect, though it is no less exciting.  After Rusty begins looking into Carolyn’s work and the film establishes certain clues, Rusty will begin to look like the prime suspect and is subsequently charged with her murder.  More than half the film then is a courtroom drama as he must both defend his innocence and find the true killer.  This might just be the description of every other Harrison Ford movie ever made.

No one involved here is all that likable, not Rusty, not Carolyn nor anyone else (except the kid from Jurassic Park).  This is an ugly crime thriller where no one is exactly innocent.  Rusty had been conducting an affair with Carolyn, which as previously mentioned his wife knew all about, but then we learn that Carolyn began sleeping with Rusty’s boss Raymond (Brian Dennehy), and when Raymond learns that Rusty had been sleeping with Carolyn he changes his testimony to help ensure Rusty looks guilty.

Just about every character here is some combination of grim, depressed, jealous and vengeful.  They spend the entire film fighting against and over each other, looking for something they likely couldn’t even put into words.  There are job interviews, possible promotions and elections to come, meaning that at every turn there is something to be gained or lost.  The characters are all grasping for those same things and are so willing to hold each other down so they may rise up.

The film’s visual style reflects this.  It’s dark and grimy, often shot so that there is no detail in the shadows of a scene, meaning characters often dissolve into literal blackness.  In one quietly amazing scene we see Rusty and Raymond conduct a tense conversation in a single take as they ride an elevator down a high rise, so that as their conversation grows more unseemly they get closer and closer into the ground until the windowed-elevator literally goes underground into pitch black.  From that point on they might as well have walked into hell and lost the keys.

It’s quite something actually, just this uncompromising filth of the human soul.  These types of stories, full of cliches and sort of silly monologues, well it’s all just genre filmmaking, but Presumed Innocent commits to a certain point of view.  It’s not that Rusty will prove his innocence and then walk blissfully into the rest of his life.  Instead some part of him has died ever before the trial began, and there’s no indication it will be revived.

But he’s not the only one, of course.  Everyone in that room appears to be on trial in some way, whether just for the benefit of the audience acting as the jury.  They’ve done something wrong, it seems, to end up in that room.  They took a wrong turn in life, and this is just the bureaucracy of hell at work.

Nothing will make these characters happy, and nothing has, and yet they keep clawing away at each other, in search of something.  They spend all their time trying to move one place up in the standings without any sense of what will come of it once and if they do.

Up Next: Joker (2019), Klute (1971), Low Tide (2019)

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