Reviewed by Paul A. Rose,
"Overall, this film had many things going for it… a solid story to be adapted – and a solid adaptation of that story, an excellent director, beautifully shot images and actors that delivered fantastic performances."
“The Trial,” based on the novel by Robert Whitlow, is something you don’t see every day… a filmed legal drama with fully developed characters and a balanced portrayal of both sides of a criminal trial.
Matthew Modine plays Mac McLain, a down and out lawyer, whose family was killed some months prior, who no longer sees any purpose to living. He’s been pulling back from his legal practice and as the film opens, we see him about to take his own life when the phone rings. Mac lets it ring for a few beats, then finally answers, postponing his final moment a little longer. On the phone is Judge Danielson, played expertly by Rance Howard, requesting (as only a judge can) Mac take on as a public defender, a rather unusual murder case.
Mac meets his client, Pete, played by To Save A Life’s Randy Wayne, who claims innocence and amnesia. He cannot recall what happened from the time he sat down to dinner with the victim, his girlfriend, and the time he awoke to find she was dead, apparently at his hand. “But you don’t kill someone you’re in love with,” he protests to Mac.
Mac goes back to the judge, accepting the case and requesting money to hire an assistant and an investigator, launching us into the thick of things. Mac first stop is to hire his brother-in-law, Ray, played by Heroes’ Robert Forester, who tells him that this isn’t going to bring his sister back, but reluctantly agrees to help.
As the story continues, we meet the Prosecutor, Bob Gunton, probably best known for his role as Secretary of Defense Ethan Kanin on 24. Gunton brings out a command performance as a hard-nosed, but moral and caring prosecutor, Joe Whetstone. He firmly believes in the evidence that proves Pete’s guilt, and will do whatever is necessary to win, but Whitlow’s original story shines here, as Whetstone is not evil, but measured, and expresses his sympathy for Mac’s tragedy when he learns of it.
The trial itself is pretty straightforward, proceeding much like a Perry Mason or Matlock episode with minor twists and turns as Ray and Mac work to discover an alternative theory of the crime, uncovering some minor bits of intrigue that seem disconnected, but you know must eventually lead somewhere. Along the way, Mac becomes close to the Psychiatrist, Dr. Anna Wilkes (played by Jericho’s Clare Carey) and her son. Unfortunately, he is a bit too close/casual with her, prompting her impartiality to be questioned in the trial.
Ignoring the title, the trial is not the end of the film, which I won’t spoil here, but was a proper and satisfying ending, resolving the questions laid out during the course of the film as well as bringing resolution to the characters and their struggles, offering hope for the future and healing for Mac.
I have to say, I have seldom enjoyed Modine’s acting as much as I did in this film. He has a great style and delivery and an excellent range of emotions, obviously developed from the myriad of roles he has played over the years. Robert Forester was excellent as well, making me forget he was once Arthur Petrelli. I have to wonder if this was actually shot before To Save A Life, because Randy Wayne seemed more immature and less confident as an actor in this film, but that is a minor criticism.
The script by Mark Freiburger & Wheeler kept the style, characterization and solid plotline developed by Whitlow, a rarity in Christian films. Frankly, I’m tired of seeing films like Thr3e and The Visitation that seem to tear out and erode the fine storytelling from the original novels. Gary Wheeler is creating a solid resume for himself. From producing the original short of Midnight Clear, to his last writing directing job – adapting Whitlow’s The List, he is showing he understands how to direct actors as well as craft an excellent looking product. As much as I enjoyed this film, I am hopeful that he will find a larger audience, perhaps working on one of the upcoming Night Chronicles.
Overall, this film
had many things going for it… a solid story to
be adapted – and a solid adaptation of that story, an excellent director,
beautifully shot images and actors that delivered fantastic performances.
Add to that a positive, hopeful ending that delivers on the premise of
the film without feeling forced or syrupy-sweet, and it’s embarrassing
that this film was delivered almost straight to video (it played in one
theatre for a couple of weeks), when it had the potential to outperform
and certainly out-deliver many of the mainstream films that were busts
at the box office. Maybe Whitlow’s next adaptation will get a better
Paul A. Rose, Jr. is a writer-producer working in Southwest Florida. He served as the Senior Television Editor for Infuze Magazine (limited archives available at http://infuzeremembered.1330productions.com/) and has also written articles for RelevantMagazine.com. He is currently co-writing a teen zombie romance film, Undead Heartache, that he hopes to begin shooting soon. You can follow the film’s progress at UndeadHeartache.com.
WATCH THE TRAILER: