MRR Review: "Reasonable Doubt"

Photo Credit: Lionsgate

Rating: R
Length: 91 minutes
Release Date: January 17, 2014
Directed by: Peter Howitt
Genre: Crime / Thriller

Twists and turns abound in director Peter Howitt's new crime thriller "Reasonable Doubt," a taut and well-paced showcase for lead actors Dominic Cooper and Samuel L. Jackson. Part courtroom drama, part whodunit and part psychological thriller, "Reasonable Doubt" gets rolling in its opening 10 minutes and refuses to loosen its grip until the credits roll. Despite a few false notes and minor plot inconsistencies, the film's frenetic pace and frequent revelations keep the story endlessly engaging. In a film landscape ever more dependent on technical wizardry and spectacle, the stripped-down "Reasonable Doubt" proves that there is no substitute for a well-crafted narrative. Indeed, plot is king.

The film begins by introducing hotshot Chicago district attorney Mitch Brockden (played by Dominic Cooper). Not only is Brockden an ace in the courtroom, he's a new father with a beautiful wife (Erin Karpluk) and a baby girl. With a promising career and family life ahead of him, Brockden is a man with a lot to lose. In these early scenes of courtroom argument and domestic bliss, Dominic Cooper imbues Brockden with an icy exterior that gradually melts as events unfold.

The web begins to tangle when Brockden, after a night of heavy drinking with fellow legal eagles, decides to drive home after having a few too many tequilas. The attorney barrels into a mysterious man on an abandoned Chicago street, leaving him bloody and on the brink of death. Frantic and confused, Brockden chooses to disguise his voice and place a pay phone call before speeding away into the night. This hit-and-run becomes the proverbial time bomb ticking throughout the film, constantly threatening Brockden's career and future as a husband and a father.

Further complications arise when the young D.A. discovers that a recent widower, Clinton Davis (Samuel L. Jackson), has been pinned with a murder charge for the hit-and-run. The unfortunate stranger, the audience learns, is found dead inside Davis' vehicle. The film's introduction of Samuel L. Jackson's character takes place in an interrogation room, where Jackson does an admirable job of remaining gruff and mysterious as he argues that he was merely taking the man to the hospital. In his own inimitable way, Jackson manages to both convince the audience of his innocence while simultaneously suggesting there may be other forces at work beneath the surface.

The events put Brockden in a difficult situation. He must now prosecute a man he knows is innocent. Or is he? Without delving too deeply into spoiler territory, things are not always as they seem in the film. The snowy night of the hit-and-run sends Cooper and Jackson's characters on a collision course, and the men soon begin a game of cat and mouse. Brockden's estranged brother Jimmy (Ryan Robbins) is drawn into the drama as each lie builds atop the next. Cooper excels at conveying the panic of a man on the brink of losing everything he loves, and Jackson is equally skilled at pulling strings behind the scenes. What begins as a simple mistake spirals into a life or death struggle between the handsome young attorney and Jackson's sad-eyed widower.

A special word must be said regarding the film's editing. None of the scenes drag or impede the plot, and "Reasonable Doubt" feels like a lean, mean story without an ounce of fat left in the final cut. It is easy for a director to be self-indulgent in crime thrillers like this, choosing to bog things down with unnecessary character beats. Howitt and his editor Richard Schwadel whittle "Reasonable Doubt" down to 91 minutes of linear story, and the straightforward approach serves to make the film feel alive and consistently vital. Other directors in the genre would do well to study the power of Howitt's approach.

This is not to say that "Reasonable Doubt" is a perfect film. Like most thrillers, there are leaps of logic for the sake of narrative convenience. There are a few moments where characters make uncharacteristic decisions for the sake of the plot. However, none of these flaws are so blatant or ham-handed that they take the viewer out of the film's grip. In fact, given the density of secrets that reveal themselves, it is something of a small miracle that "Reasonable Doubt" doesn't collapse under the weight of its own breakneck narrative pace. Somehow the elements remain balanced throughout, guided by Howitt's restrained direction along with Cooper and Jackson's on-screen charisma.

Many films "wind down" to a conclusion. "Reasonable Doubt" cranks up the intensity. The emotional stakes get higher and higher as the action crescendos to a climactic meeting that is suitably tense and rewarding. With its breathless plot, tight narrative and winning performances, "Reasonable Doubt" leaves no doubt about its capacity to thrill and enrapture at every turn.

Rating: 3 out of 5