Regardless of the medium, courtroom stories are inherently tethered to their verdict. While some of these dramas foreground character nuance or an indictment of the justice system, the wait for a “Guilty” or “Not guilty” is the elemental fuel for the dramatic fire. “The Whole Truth,” the latest from “Frozen River” director Courtney Hunt, preserves that innocence binary for the people who populate its story. The overbearing father, the brash attorney, the misunderstood son, the junior litigator: all exist on clearly defined ends of the spectrum. The result is a film that often avoids any middle ground, making for a cut-and-dried courtroom tale that desperately wants to be anything but.
The earliest hope that “The Whole Truth” might find a path to transcending the familiar “Law & Order” rhythms is Keanu Reeves’ turn as Richard Ramsay, who manages to exude the familiar alpha male lawyer persona in a controlled (and, at times, subdued) way. Ramsay’s client is young Mike Lasseter (Gabriel Basso), a sullen teenager on trial for the murder of his loathsome father (Jim Belushi).
To the initial chagrin of Mike’s mother Loretta (Renée Zellweger), Ramsay takes on another member of the defense team. Janelle Brady (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) comes equipped with her own redemption arc, in the shadow of her successful lawyer father. The initial parrying between Janelle and Ramsay as they suss out each other’s personal and professional style adds a much-needed dose of levity. But as the procedural beats of Mike’s case and the details of the crime in question swallow the film’s focus, little room remains for personality-driven touches that might elevate this from being standard legal fare.
Though Rafael Jackson’s script takes time to include testimony from everyone on the conspicuously small witness list, most of the relevant details come from flashback sequences outside the courtroom. Most engaging are the wispy, fleeting glimpses that Hunt incorporates in a hazy, overheard fashion. But those sequences that get the full-blown flashback treatment always double as blaring clue sirens. As a result, these memories get assembled into a clear hierarchy that’s less about how these memories work and more about establishing an explicit plot framework.
This, in turn, does few favors for the cast of “The Whole Truth.” As Mike’s father, Jim Belushi shows he’s capable of playing the scumbaggery that makes him a contemptible villain. But his character exists purely to be a foil, the film’s way of establishing an outsized character to keep the audience looking one way before jerking them back towards another.
Janelle’s backstory (which, as described by her, sounds like a much darker version of the CW’s most critically adored show) is disregarded as quickly as she serves her purpose to the case. But despite being saddled with being the surly, brooding teenager, the film’s standout is Gabriel Basso, who lets just enough of Mike’s inner turmoil percolate at the surface. Silent for much of the film, he takes elements of a familiar revenge tale and does everything in his power to rescue his storyline from some murky ethical waters.
Courtney Hunt’s debut film “Frozen River” took advantage of its Canadian border setting, weaving it into the fabric of the film’s immigration tale. Here, there are few nods to the courthouse’s Louisiana environs outside of some very loud crickets. When most of the film takes place on a private plane and in the backyard of a mansion, there aren’t many chances to pull back beyond amped-up suburban angst.
And while the natural lighting of the courthouse and the relative patient pace of the testimony might hint a more organic approach to this kind of drama, there’s still a stifling air of inevitability to that flashback structure. Regardless of the culprit or the jury’s verdict, it’s never in doubt that the “real” story will be revealed in due time. There might be momentary meditations on the nature of truth, but once it’s apparent that this tale is hurtling towards an unambiguous conclusion, it zaps the story of any tactical entertainment value.
The film’s closing minutes offer some parting pieces of information that upend some previously laid assumptions, but it’s a grafted-on coda rather than a well-choreographed gut punch. Missing from that protracted epilogue? Ramsay’s intermittent voiceover, which occasionally surfaces throughout the movie to hammer home character details that were already apparent. It’s telling that the only time it pulls back is when there’s nothing left to say.
“The Whole Truth” is now in theaters.