Film Review: The Whole Truth

A thin and not fully believable courtroom procedural that nonetheless holds your interest.
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In light of Courtney Hunt’s earlier film, Frozen River, marking an impressive debut for her as screenwriter and director, her latest endeavor The Whole Truth is that much more disappointing. Frozen River, starring Melissa Leo, was an original and textured peek into the marginalized lives of the very poor in upstate New York, eking out a living by smuggling immigrants across an icy border between Quebec and New York. By contrast, The Whole Truth is a generic courtroom drama. Within modest parameters it’s engaging, but Hunt had set the bar very high on her first outing.

Written by Rafael Jackson, whose credits to date are in television, The Whole Truth centers on Louisiana-based defense attorney Richard Ramsay (Keanu Reeves) representing teenager Mike (Gabriel Basso), who is accused of killing his well-heeled father, Boone Lassiter (Jim Belushi). After a bout of silence (which makes no sense), Mike pleads guilty to the crime while Ramsey, a personal friend of Mike’s widowed mom Loretta (Renée Zellweger), promises her he will keep Mike out of jail.

As the narrative unfolds—and much of it is recounted through flashbacks—we learn that Boone was an abusive father and husband. Mike has already confessed, but the seeds of doubt have been planted. Perhaps it was self-defense. Perhaps he didn’t commit the murder at all but is simply protecting his mom. Perhaps it’s something else altogether. The film raises questions about Ramsey’s motivation and his legal ethics that in the real world would lead to disbarment. Ramsey’s high-I.Q. new colleague Janelle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) suspects something foul afoot but is unable to pinpoint precisely what it is.

There are potentially interesting stories here lurking beneath the surface, but none is the focus or even sufficiently fleshed out to become a subplot. And there are credibility gaps throughout. It’s almost inconceivable, for example, that a benign mother, and she is presented as such, would allow her son to take the rap for a major crime (possibly resulting in a life sentence) that she knows he has not committed.

The acting is uneven. While Basso’s impassive expression works for a non-articulate teenager who finds himself way in over his head, Reeves seems a tad wooden even for an enigmatic character. Mbatha-Raw’s Janelle is an intelligent presence who is in a legal quandary and struggling with moral issues. Zellweger’s Loretta pulls off “troubled” with conviction, yet it’s difficult to pay much attention now that the actress’ appearance is so altered. In the end, Jim Belushi walks off with this one as the arrogant, know-nothing, bullying bastard.

Despite its one-dimensionality, The Whole Truth moves along at a clipped pace, and up to a point the suspense builds. Hunt is a professional, but one hoped for so much more. Next time.

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