Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Verdict (Het Vonnis)

THE VERDICT (Het Vonnis)       B+              
Belgium  (112 mi)  2013  d:  Jan Verheyen          Website            Trailer

This is a film that wastes no time and gets the viewer right into the middle of the action, introducing Koen De Bouw as Luc Segers, an ambitious corporate executive that his risen to the top of the corporate ladder and is about to be named as the successor of the retiring CEO at lunch the next day, but not before the company throws a celebratory office party.  On the ride home, with his daughter asleep in the back seat of the car, they stop to fill up for gas while his wife runs across the street for a loaf of bread in a 24-hour automat.  While the floor is strewn with litter, a man with an icepick in his hand appears from behind the shadows, assaulting her instantly, literally beating her to death.  When Segers runs across the street to check what’s taking her so long, the man coldcocks him with a whack across the face, knocking him out cold, while his daughter gets hit by a car running to help her Dad.  Segers survives after a 3-week coma, but the other two perish on the scene.  When he’s well enough to visit the local police station, he finds the man thumbing through mug shots, Kenny De Groot (Hendrik Aerts), a career criminal with a lengthy rap sheet where he’s spent his life in and out of prison, who is immediately arrested, but instantly released on a technicality when the indictment papers are inadvertently left unsigned.  Segers goes ballistics when his own attorney (Johan Leysen) explains the error, as does the public at large, who are outraged first over the brutality of the crime, but then that such a vicious criminal could be released to the street.

The incident is seen through a cross segment of society, from news broadcasts and their legal experts, to talk shows with their opinionated audiences, as well as the bulldog prosecuting attorney (Jappe Claes), and the the publicly elected District Attorney, all of whom find the event disgusting, but the legal analysts argue that the laws of a democracy are not a perfect system, but adherence to the rule of law provides society’s moral compass.  Making matters even worse, Segers is simply not the same after De Groot is released, where he’s listlessly inattentive at work, and his mind seems elsewhere.  As a result, someone else is chosen as the successor CEO, while Segers begins stalking the De Groot garage, eventually following him back to his garage where he empties the chambers of an 8-round automatic pistol into his chest, killing him on the spot.  His arrest creates even more outrage, as he’s a sympathetic public figure, where a near unanimous consensus believes he never would have killed the man had the arrested criminal not been released by a bureaucratic bungling.  Nevertheless, the prosecutor wants a conviction, calling a murder a murder, as he doesn’t want to see the start of vigilante justice where victims, such as rape or assault or kidnap victims, who have been wronged or harmed begin taking the law into their own hands.  However, Segers has other ideas, as he intends to challenge a system that allows an identified murderer to be placed back on the streets again, as that certainly doesn’t represent the larger public interest.   
The film uses a cool and detached style showing only what’s essential, becoming a taut thriller, much like American conspiracy thrillers of the 70’s, where the overall production values feel meticulously designed, which give the film a vividly realistic detail.  The ensemble cast feels naturalistic and doesn’t resort to stereotype, where the courtroom scenes are riveting.  All the principles are excellent in presenting the case, where Segers takes a gamble by choosing to use a defense covered under Article 7.1 of the Belgian Constitution, where a traumatic incident can cause a person to instantaneously snap, usually on the spur of the moment, such as a man raping your wife or attacking your child, where any harm caused under these narrowly defined circumstances may be deemed lawful.  The problem here is that it was not spontaneous, but premeditated, as Segers stalked De Groot for several days waiting for his opportunity.  The evidence presented is starkly compelling, but much like Sidney Lumet’s film by the same name, THE VERDICT (1982), it’s the closing arguments that really shine.  Perhaps most interesting is the presence of De Groot’s defense attorney (Veerle Baetens) who is protecting the rights of the deceased, who brilliantly makes the case that legal technicalities are no small errors, providing a narrative of De Groot’s troubled childhood that is quite simply devastating, while the prosecutor argues that similarly harmed victims of sex crimes or drunken drivers or senseless assault don’t have the right to enact revenge on their perpetrators, as this is a matter for the police and the courts, not individuals taking the law into their own hands.  On the other hand Segers’ lawyer suggests that when the system fails to protect its citizens, as they are constitutionally mandated to do, it inflicts further harm on top of trauma that already exists, often forcing people to deal with the impossible.  At nearly two hours, the film feels concise and beautifully edited, moving at a rapid pace, where the director knows how to ratchet up the tension and sustain it throughout in the complex legal exposé.   

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