The Trial
Journeyman Court Drama

If you’re expecting Franz Kafka or Orson Welles with this production, you’re in for a rude surprise—and Matthew Modine will never be mistaken for Anthony Perkins.

If, on the other hand, you have no idea to what I’m referring, Gary Wheeler’s latest adaptation of a Robert Whitlow novel will probably suit you just fine.

In 1962, Welles took Perkins to France to film a typically off-kilter black-and-white adaptation of Kafka’s novel The Trial.  The film was released late in the year to critical acclaim—and predictable boxoffice failure.  Today it is widely used in teaching film at the college level, and is self-consciously arty, deliberately obtuse, and abstract… everything that Wheeler’s Trial is not.

There’s nonetheless plenty of angst in Whitlow’s story of a rural Georgia lawyer who has given up on life.  Mac is just about to pull the plug when he gets the call: Judge Danielson needs a public defender for a young man up on murder charges, and he figures the case is precisely what Mac needs to pull him out of his funk.

Matthe Modine as Mac in The TrialMac is a pretty good metaphor for the film itself.  He’s a guy who seems appealingly familiar and is not particularly out to impress anyone; yet he takes his job seriously even if he’s not the best lawyer on the circuit.  His crew is made up people he knows he can trust, but are not people for whom casework is a steady gig. He’ll put in the work necessary to get the job done—and will likely miss details that hotshot professionals, like prosecutor Joe Whetstone, wouldn’t let by. And when the case is over, he’s smart enough to know that there are bigger trials in life than torts, crimes, litigation, and prosecution.  Both he and his client, young Pete Thomason, know that survivor’s guilt, for instance, can be quite a trial, too.

This is one of those movies you won’t at all mind having seen even if you can’t remember the details of the plot a week later.  It’s like spending time with an old friend, or slipping on a comfortable shoe.  In the lead roles, Matthew Modine and Bob Gunton are fine as Mac and Joe, sparring partners on the opposite side of the same team, and Rance Howard turns in perhaps one of the finest supporting performances of his career as the judge.  Young Randy Wayne, whom you may remember from To Save A Life, provides the right mix of wide-eyed innocence and shiftiness to keep the audience guessing as to Pete’s guilt or innocence in the murder of his girlfriend, Angela Hightower. I was hoping, though, that the script would give Wayne more to do.

The story itself is a low-key examination of the role that hope and faith play in survivor’s guilt, and the message is deftly delivered without obtrusive voiceovers or moralizing dialogue.

So as director Wheeler and screenwriter Mark Freiburger take you through the investigation of the Hightower family and the circumstances surrounding Angela’s death, you’ll likely find this sophomore feature film to be the logical—and satisfying—next step for everyone involved.  Sometimes vanilla is just the flavor you’re after.

The Trial is not Welles—and it doesn’t need to be.

The Trial is rated PG-13 for “some thematic material and a disturbing image.”  That’s fair.  This is about murder and suicidal guilt, after all.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of The Trial.