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The Whole Truth | Review

Truth, Be Told: Hunt Returns to Moral Grey Zone with Courtroom Drama

Courtney Hunt The Whole TruthThe only real anomalistic quality to Courtney Hunt’s long awaited sophomore feature The Whole Truth is why she chose to undertake this derivatively formulated courtroom drama in the first place. By no means a terrible film, it’s a surprisingly emaciated venture compared to the promise incited by her debut, the 2008 indie darling Frozen River, which netted an Oscar nod for lead Melissa Leo, as well as a Best Screenplay nomination for Hunt. Seemingly inspired after directing several episodes of “Law & Order: SVU” in her eight year absence from film, there’s an inescapable essence of television in this negligible, increasingly erratic, low-key legal thriller which has one too many final reveals to qualify as logical. Those appreciative of the inherent anxiety in courtroom melodramas will perhaps remain interested in this significantly watered down whodunit, but will more than likely have several reservations concerning the final expected surprise.

When corpulent Southern businessman Boone Lassiter (Jim Belushi) is found stabbed in his bedroom with only his wife Loretta (Renee Zellweger) and teenage son Mike (Gabriel Rosso) at home, logic dictates only one of them could have been the killer. Since Mike made statements in front of police indicating it was him, he’s charged with the crime as an adult, forcing family lawyer Ramsey (Keanu Reeves) to take up his defense. Except Mike has gone mute, forcing Ramsey to go to extreme lengths in court to prove to the jury there’s reasonable doubt, or at least a rational explanation for what actually happened to Boone, who had a reputation as wife-beater. Employing a troubled young lawyer in need of a second chance (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the team does their best to make the substantial circumstantial evidence seem questionable, but both realize they’re either defending a killer or allowing someone else to go unpunished.

Filmed in low-key lighting (nothing in the film appears to be very vibrant, not even the aftermath of the bloody murder scene), DP Jules O’Laughlin (Krampus; Wish You Were Here) doesn’t manage anything visually striking, though the action sticks mostly to the confines of a dismal courtroom. Hunt clearly has a predilection for showcasing humans trapped in their own moral grey zones, although this time around, the scenario feels hampered by familiarity, especially as compared to the more topical immigration issues funneled through a wintry Indian Reservation of her previous film.

An immediate problem is some monotonous and unnecessary omniscient narration from Keanu Reeves, who sounds bored to death reading aloud information we would have logically deduced for ourselves as the narrative progresses. As Ramsey, the mildly concerned defense lawyer for a mute, potentially murderous teenager, Reeves is his usual glorious one-register self. A more dynamic performer could have perhaps distracted us from the staunchly obvious message drenching every single sequence—young Mike either had an accomplice or is covering up for someone else entirely.

As we’re left to wonder which of these avenues the film will take, the focus becomes the establishment of reasonable doubt, conveyed with simplicity by the striking Gugu Mbatha-Raw (it’s nice to see her as more than mere apparel for her male lead, though this isn’t quite the material like Belle or Beyond the Lights, vehicles which really allowed her to shine) as a rookie struggling to overcome both her sincerity and troubled emotional past as she struggles to fill the shoes of her father, a reputable off-screen lawyer who was Ramsey’s mentor. It doesn’t help her characterization when she’s introduced in ridiculous fashion as being necessary for the case due to her renowned ability to detect liars.

And as the female lead, Renee Zellweger remains a curious screen presence, if mostly because this is one of the two titles to bow this year following her six year hiatus after unveiling controversial cosmetic surgery which dominated most of the discussions surrounding her studio comeback in Bridget Jones’s Baby.

Hunt’s film doesn’t have to shoulder the same weight, and so Zellweger, who’s pronouncedly altered visage is only distracting if you let it be (sometimes it appears we’re watching an avatar of the actor, but to be honest, she looks as tasteful and alluring as ever), is allowed to be a strange mixture of pathetic victim and perverse femme fatale. A bloated but unmistakable Jim Belushi shows up in flashbacks as the abusive, misogynist husband, and curiously, throughout several dramatic shifts of guilt, The Whole Truth never demands we question its bottom line—whoever killed the man or whatever it is he actually did, everyone is much better off now that he’s dead.

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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