Movie Review: The Trial
The Charlotte Observer
Not all of us like surprises.
Some moviegoers want reaffirmation of beliefs in the basic decency of man and the protective love of God. We want to know that the despairing fellow who puts a gun under his chin in the first scene will never do that again, that the guilty will be punished and the innocent freed, that mournful and lonely folk will find consolation and the hope of enduring romance.
That’s the audience Robert Whitlow successfully attracts to his novels, and the one director Gary Wheeler attracts to movie adaptations of them. Their latest collaboration, the courtroom drama “The Trial” satisfyingly navigates those well-charted waters. If that sounds like faint praise, it’s not meant to be: There’s nary a big surprise, but I defy anyone who sees this film to leave without a warm feeling.
The title refers in its basic sense to the accusation of murder leveled at Pete Thomason (Randy Wayne), who woke up next to a corpse with his body full of drugs and his mind in a muddle.
But the movie is really about the emotional trials faced by Mac McClain (Matthew Modine), who has retired from legal practice and is about to retire from life when he’s interrupted by a judge’s phone call. McClain, whose family died in an auto wreck, pulls himself together to take the case, assisted by his former legal secretary (Nikki Deloach) and his father-in-law, a laconic private investigator (Robert Forster).
The script by Mark Freiburger, Wheeler and Whitlow moves smoothly toward its appointed destination. Mac gets helpful evidence from a smart, beautiful psychologist (Clare Carey) who happens to be a grief counselor and a widower whose son needs a father figure. A catty prosecutor (Bob Gunton) comes in from out of town to seek the death penalty.
Yet there are nuances, too. The prosecutor (Joe Whetstone, what a name!) is sympathetic toward Mac and willing to accept defeat if justice is done. The real villain isn’t as obvious as he seems. Both McClain and Whetstone do some sloppy lawyering and have to get out of binds.
God plays a significant role in these movies: The grief counselor urges clients to turn to prayer, and McClain eventually thanks God for saving him. The film could be subtler about this message – God’s help is not only held out to us but popped down our throats like a beneficial pill – yet that doesn’t blunt the overall emotional impact.
The actors are all comfortable in this familiar emotional territory. The low-key Modine seems most at home as the burned-out McClain, but he finally rises to the right level of passionate intensity by the end. Carey is both maternal and romantic, and Gunton – whose 30-year film career seems like an unbroken string of villains, most memorably in “The Shawshank Redemption” – is more subtle and interesting here than usual.
The physical territory will be familiar to readers: The movie was shot in the lovely old courthouse in Monroe and around Mecklenburg and Union counties. Many actors with local ties do well in bit parts, from Burgess Jenkins’ troubled ex-Marine to Brian Lafontaine’s forensics expert.
In fact, the three filmmakers are Charlotteans: Wheeler went to East Mecklenburg High and Freiburger to Providence High, while Whitlow has a legal practice here. (They’ll shoot Whitlow’s “Jimmy” this fall in the area.) They’ve successfully created a cottage industry for themselves with these projects, and it’s an appealing one.