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Presumed Innocent: Jake Gyllenhaal is at his all-time least charismatic in this sluggish legal thriller
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Presumed Innocent: Jake Gyllenhaal is at his all-time least charismatic in this sluggish legal thriller

I know you didn’t ask, but here’s the problem with slowly-unfolding legal thrillers, ones that start with a phone call and a gasp and a murder then veer between the airless corporate office and the shattered family home of the accused, ending in court where lawyers keep making booming overdone speeches to the jury. Their difficulty is when, exactly, they bother to make us care about the person who got murdered in the first place.

The first option, and quite a common easy dodge, is you never really make the audience care: there’s a body, look. Yeah, in a bag. David Tennant turns out to sea with his hands on his hips. Last thing he needed today. Oh well: time to interview absolutely every person in the town. And in the final episode there’s a semi-preposterous reason why it was actually the person you suspected the least all along. The end.

A second option, and far rarer, is you make the audience care about and know and invest in the character and see lines of dialogue that aren’t just dead-wife-under-a-billowing-duvet fare (“Hey, are you awake? It’s me, silly!”) before they get killed, which sort of works, yeah, but wastes a lot of time. Come on, we’ve got eight hours of anguished behaviour from the accused to watch here! We need to see them making mysterious visits to abandoned factory buildings in the rain! Get on with it!

Then the third option, the one Presumed Innocent (Apple TV+, from 12 June) is shooting for, which is: here’s your body, look. Grim, isn’t it. Anyway: shall we go to the office and make a few phone calls and Jake Gyllenhaal can hold his head like he’s really stressed for a bit? What if he picks a file up, flicks through it then throws it down really hard? Oh, you still don’t care about the dead body? What about an intrusive flashback scene? What about dozens, each more meaningless than the last? What about eight hours of that?

Presumed Innocent is two things: it’s a TV remake of a film nobody was particularly asking for (1990, Harrison Ford), and it’s an Apple TV+ thing where they get an astonishingly recognisable actor (in this instance Gyllenhaal), pair them with a Wagyu-grade producer (JJ Abrams), and let them both spend a few months doing an idea they clearly like but fundamentally can be described as “only kind of all right”. The supporting cast are a great selection of Stern Guys With Fun Voices, as well as a wounded wife played by Ruth Negga. Gyllenhaal plays Rusty Sabich, prosecutor extraordinaire and briefly the former lover of his murdered right-hand woman Carolyn Polhemus (The Worst Person in the World’s Renate Reinsve), and, also – and this is terrible timing – there’s some sort of city department election happening that is quite hard to follow or care about. Rusty keeps going to the office and not really finding any evidence; he keeps staying up late wearing glasses and looking at files; he goes to therapy but doesn’t really engage in the process in a meaningful way; he keeps remembering those times he had sex with the deceased.

It’s about the least charismatic I’ve ever seen Gyllenhaal – Rusty’s three hobbies are “throwing a baseball at his son, who they forgot to write dialogue for”, “swimming” and “being accused of murder” – and he does all of them slowly and charmlessly. We are drip-fed little moments where we learn about the murder victim so we can care about her a bit: they keep forgetting to do the same for Rusty. Would it be so bad if he had to go to prison? I’m not sure I’d personally care.

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But legal thrillers are meant to move as if through treacle, and if you want a strange case to slowly unfurl in front of you, this is definitely that. It put me in mind of 2020’s The Undoing, the Nicole-Kidman-asking-Hugh-Grant-if-he-did-that-murder six-parter where every other episode seemed to result in someone having a desperate revelation while running across a bridge, though change the “old money New York” setting for Gyllenhaal bumbling around Chicago in the rain and you’re getting closer to the bull. Not for me, but if you have a “lawyers being mean in courtrooms” fetish (Anatomy of a Fall might have ignited something, I don’t know?), it could well work for you.

Source: theguardian.com