"The Box." That was the name of the interrogation room in NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Streets. It was featured in an episode entitled "Three Men and Adena," where Detectives Pembleton and Bayliss go after the man they most strongly suspect of the murder of Adena Watson, with a twelve hour time limit, during which they try every tactic they can think of to get a confession. This episode began to circle my head very early on in a movie about an unsolved set of murders of young girls, and two cops insistent that they find an answer and focusing on the man they believe is responsible.
Captain Victor Benezet (Morgan Freeman) is a friend of lawyer Henry Hearst (Gene Hackman), but finds his story of the discovery and report of the second murder victim questionable when it conflicts with the testimony of other interviewees. Before Hearst is to give a speech at a charity fundraiser, Victor calls him in for "ten minutes" of questions. It rapidly becomes apparent that Victor’s genial tones are just a tactic to keep Henry somewhat at ease and pull information from him. His wife Chantal (Monica Bellucci) waits for him at the charity event, but Victor eventually lets in the more aggressive Detective Owens (Thomas Jane), who makes no bones about his own suspicions. The two of them circle Hearst, whose shifting story and reluctance to elaborate on his life do him no good in his continued insistence on his innocence.
I was relatively surprised to see this movie as, well, not quite panned, but certainly looked-down-upon as it is. I could feel the theatrical origins (admittedly, it has none, but that doesn’t stop me) and learned appreciation earlier for the "bottled" drama. Of course, director Stephen Hopkins does not actually keep everything enclosed. After all the characters are rounded into Victor’s office from more spacious locales, he makes brief exits to visualizations of Henry’s recollections of his memories. Victor and Owens periodically appear in those memories to ask questions or observe the events he describes, scrutinizing them for missed details or discrepancies. Chantal wanders in to the police station eventually, which expands the environment beyond Victor’s office just a bit.
Freeman and Hackman are brilliant and play their roles to the perfect point of believable straightness–there is no guarantee of what Hearst is hiding, nor what Victor truly believes or is holding back to sling at Hearst later. Going in, the movie can be seen easily as either an innocent man being worn down by insistent police or policemen attempting to wear down a guilty suspect who refuses to admit his guilt. All of Hopkins’ interesting choices, like rapid cuts to frame, reframe or emphasize an element and play it up, or Victor’s appearance in the memories of others never serve to encourage one suspicion or the other, and nothing but the facts, opinions and comments are built in to the audience’s perception of Henry. The film itself is neutral, only serving to facilitate these things, biasing itself only to the current speaker and his or her feelings within a memory or comment.
There’s a strange amount of discussion for a pretty clear ending, albeit one that is not completely spelled out. The issue of guilt is established clearly by the end, through evidence that few could really argue with. Some have come up with cockamamie plots and secret ideas about how the murders were carried out, but none are borne out by the evidence that is put on display. There is a certain ambiguity to how the primary characters interact at the end, when guilt is clearly laid out, but it’s conveyed quite clearly all the same.
This is a solid movie, cleverly put together without treating its peculiar choices as gimmicks to ride on, and with very, very excellent performances from Freeman and Hackman, both men so certain of themselves but taken around and around as the story unfolds.