Her six-year hiatus complete, Renee Zellweger has now graced the silver screen twice in the last month: first with “Bridget Jones’s Baby” and now “The Whole Truth,” a courtroom drama in which everything is subtly out of order. Neither the movie itself nor Zellweger’s performance announce themselves loudly, but both acquit themselves well enough once the slow accumulation of facts comes to form a clear picture. Marked by the legalese and narrative pivots demanded by the genre, but lacking enough verve to offset its familiarity, Courtney Hunt‘s film returns a verdict of Not Bad.
Keanu Reeves takes first chair as the strait-laced attorney defending Zellweger’s character’s son (Gabriel Basso), who freely admits to murdering his wretch of a father (Jim Belushi) six months prior. With the teenager in the midst of a self-imposed vow of silence since doing the patricidal deed, Reeves is at sea as to how he might defend his uncooperative client.
Reeves breaks that silence with on-the-nose narration that, at times, invites unfavorable comparisons to Harrison Ford‘s stilted voiceover in the first cut of “Blade Runner.” The actor, who’s found a new franchise in “John Wick” and small roles in provocative festival-circuit fare like Nicolas Winding Refn‘s “The Neon Demon” and Ana Lily Amirpour‘s “The Bad Batch,” has always had more range than he’s given credit for — not that this role, a cynical lawyer in Louisiana who knows the system and how to work it, affords him much opportunity to display that range in an overt way.
As tends to be the case, though, there’s more to both Reeves’s character and his performance than it initially appears. So far as we can tell, this lawyer seems to be perceived in much the same way that Reeves is: a decent professional who tends not to stand out much. Hunt — who also directed “Frozen River” and a couple episodes of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” — relies on that perception to lull us into a sense of complacency, like an up-close magician performing sleight of hand.
“The Whole Truth” stands out within its evergreen genre for the largely unsensational manner in which it’s presented. Hunt follows actual courtroom procedures more closely than most similar movies (this courtroom looks like a workaday space where actual mundane trials are conducted, not the site of shocking outbursts and grand moments of truth-telling) which makes the eventual revelations feel earned.
Zellweger plays it as close to the vest as Reeves does, and it isn’t much of a spoiler to say that this case isn’t as open-and-shut as the prosecution might hope. We learn early on that the deceased was an imposing figure who was, at the very least, verbally abusive toward his long-suffering wife. Gugu Mbatha-Raw completes the ensemble as Reeves’s assistant, her comparatively fresh-faced approach to the law not yet as pessimistic as that of her superior.
We have the right to a speedy procedural, of course, and so Hunt keeps things moving with all the efficiency of a no-nonsense judge. “The Whole Truth” takes place entirely in the present, but each mention of the murder is accompanied by a flashback to the moment in question. The day of the crime is slowly anatomized, as are key incidents leading up to it, as though we were watching an amnesiac regain his memory.
Most of these flashbacks are fragmentary, only revealing so much information at once, and it’s in the bit-by-bit reconstruction of the crime that Hunt finds her stride. The more she zooms in on individual moments, the more we’re able to step back and connect seemingly unrelated pieces of evidence. By the time the final gavel sounds, “The Whole Truth” has presented a strong case for itself.