Film Reviews

RUNAWAY JURY

By • Oct 17th, 2003 •

Share This:

I was on a rape case jury a few years ago in Las Vegas. The judge refused all excuses people offered to be exempted from serving on the jury. He said: “If I have to be here, so do you.” It was a harrowing experience. I took such copious notes the jury nominated me for foreman. I declined due to stress. I nearly fainted on day three. In deliberations, I argued with jurors. I had to go over every scrap of evidence and all the testimony. I found out a juror’s boyfriend was in jail with the defendant. I had a note sent to the judge. I refused to go along with the majority vote on Friday afternoon. I made us reconvene on Monday. My husband had to come support me when we announced the verdict.

Both lawyers wanted to talk to me afterward. They knew I was the one who had caused all the trouble. Only later did I find out that the defendant was already serving years for another rape. Thank God the jurors convinced me the guy was guilty.

I cannot attest to the accuracy of RUNAWAY JURY. I’m going to assume that John Grisham knows the law and courtroom procedure and would make sure that a movie, adapted from his 1996 best-selling book would be as realistic as cinematically possible.

I do take fault with one huge point critical to the story: The judge’s relationship to the jury. In RUNAWAY JURY, the judge did not have one.

A New Orleans stockbroker (Dylan McDermont) and eleven employees are killed by a disgruntled former employee. His widow sues the gun manufacturer. The case is so important that the gun lobby hires brilliant Jury Consultant Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) to handpick the jury. Occasionally Fitch turns up in court; however, the case is being tried by a lawyer (Bruce Davidson) who is constantly fed directives by Fitch. Do judges actually allow this kind of thing? Fitch is the masterful manipulator who orchestrates a vast army of technicians, sleuths, hit men, and investigators who dig up dirt on the prospective jurors. After they get the right people on the jury they will do everything illegally possible to deliver the verdict they are paid to get.

Fitch’s team goes through the entire potential jury pool before the random selection process even begins! They have more information on each and every prospective jury than the CIA, FBI, and NSA could ever hope to have.

Woe to you if you make it onto this jury. Fitch has his twelve jurors and then the real fun and games begins as he uncovers every dirty secret and peccadillo. He breaks the law with brute force. He terrorizes the jurors. This team should be looking for Saddam. Is this kind of practice actually taking place? We hear about digging up dirt on witnesses and the litigating parties embroiled in a trial, but the jury? Grisham wants us to believe this is a possibility.

Jury tampering? The judge scoffs at the notion.

The plaintiff’s lawyer, Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), has one jury consultant (Jeremy Piven) without even a laptop at his disposal. He uses “intuition.” Rohr believes in his client and the legal system. He does not seem the least bit troubled by Fitch and his warehouse of information thieves.

Nick Easter (John Cusack), improbably gets himself on the jury by trying to get off jury duty. Unwisely, Fitch wants him. Fitch’s weakness propels the story forward. Easter plays each juror like a sap. He will, aided by his ruthless companion Marlee (Rachel Weisz), manipulate the jury for the highest bidder. Once Marlee makes her offer, the selling of the jury verdict is on the open market. Fitch loves the challenge and plays along. Fitch does not even once entertain the fact that he handpicked Easter! All he is now interested in is: Will they deliver the jury and how will they do it? He wants proof.

Hackman relishes his character’s bespoke suits. He loves barking at underlings.

Here is where the four screenwriters (Brain Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland, Matthew Chapman) skillfully design an intriguing, suspenseful drama. No sloppy happenstance. No improbable lucky breaks. The director, Gary Fleder, achieves a sublime air of tension that keeps each audience member routed in Seat 13 of the jury box. This is no small task especially when the suspence keeps building to a clever, satisfying climax with a nice twist.

Cusack hits the right tone, using his tired, drawn features to full effect. He’s got the kind of face you just cannot trust without an interrogation. Which way will he go? Will he go through with the deception or will his conscience get the best of him? Hackman looms over Hoffman. Hoffman’s role is underdeveloped and lacks an interesting personality. Hoffman is reduced to playing Tootsie once again. Why isn’t Rohr worried about jury tampering? What is his plan of counterattack? Does he have a strategy? The Hackman-Hoffman confrontation reeks more of showy stagecraft than anything else. After putting Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in a coffee shop in HEAT, this is the requisite scene for two big heavyweight stars in rival roles.

This is by far the most compelling Grisham movie adaptation yet. High praise must go to Fleder for staging essentially a courtroom drama with gripping uneasiness and uncomfortable suspense. I’m seeing RUNAWAY JURY again; it is certainly worth a second

Tagged as:
Share This Article: Digg it | del.icio.us | Google | StumbleUpon | Technorati

Leave a Comment

(Comments are moderated and will be approved at FIR's discretion, please allow time to be displayed)