Benefit of the Doubt: Psychological Thriller Starring Donald Sutherland and Amy Irving

(Psychological thriller)

Suspense is not the strongest suit of Benefit of the Doubt, a disappointing psychological thriller that uses the format of a TV-styled family melodrama but fails to target the gut or the mind. Predictable concept and mediocre production values should result in modest box-office results, though a strong performance by Amy Irving might translate into a hot video rental.

Benefit of the Doubt begins rather promisingly with an interesting set-up, when Frank Braswell (Donald Sutherland) is paroled after spending 22 years in prison. Accused of killing his wife, Sutherland’s conviction was helped by the testimony of his daughter Karen (Amy Irving), who still believes he is guilty.

A single mother, working as a cocktail waitress in a strip joint, Irving dreads the return of her father to Cottonwood, a small Arizona town. The idea of seeing him again not only brings back haunting nightmares from her childhood but also threatens the new life she has built with her young son Pete (Rider Strong) and her b.f. Dan (Christopher McDonald).

It turns out that Sutherland is mainly concerned with maintaining the unity of his nuclear family. Early on, in a narration that may reveal too much, he expresses his motto: “the strength of this nation lies in the strength of its families.” Before going to prison, Sutherland told his daughter “Daddy won’t forget this,” and now it remains to be seen what exactly he meant.
Set in rural Arizona and centering on the working-class, Benefit of the Doubt cleverly deviates from the much-exploited “yuppie-in-peril” urban thriller that has saturated American screens over the last couple of years. But Jeffrey Polman and Christopher Keyser’s script is constantly obscured by B-movie plot devices that drag the material to a perfunctory level.

The chief problem is that half an hour into the movie, the pivotal dirty little family secrets are disclosed and the story has nowhere to go. When the first murder makes its scheduled stop, one can sniff red herring a mile away. The audience is always ahead of the story, which spells disaster for genuine suspense.

There are also plausibility problems: A key bedroom scene in the middle of the film simply doesn’t ring true. And some intriguing details, that perhaps Irving’s testimony against her father was coached by the prosecutor (Theodore Bikel) are just dropped in but never developed.

The movie aspires to the ambience and tonality of The Stepfather, with which it shares some themes in common, but it lacks the nasty irony and frightening undertones of that film. One waits for the plot to get more clever, but instead it gets more pedestrian. Lacking sustained tension, sufficient twists and turns, subtle intimations, its structure is simply too blatant.

Novice director Jonathan Heape doesn’t seem to have the savvy technique or manipulative skills that are necessary in making a pleasurable thriller. His crude direction lacks the gaudy gloss of Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction) or Curtis Hanson (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) that always help thrillers. The climax, which involves a chase scene at the gorgeous Lake Powell and its surrounding mountains, is ineptly staged and poorly photographed.

Cast against type, Amy Irving gives a startling performance, conveying the vulnerability of a single mother and suspicious daughter, without begging for audience sympathy or indulging in undue hysterics. With sexier and more down-to-earth looks than the usual, Irving holds the interest even under improbable circumstances.

As the loving yet menacing father, however, the usually reliable Sutherland is surprisingly timid and inexpressive. Despite the fact that he has played ambiguous and creepy roles before, Sutherland’s portrayal here lacks shading and nuance, which are problems of the entire film.

Christopher McDonald as the fiance, Graham Greene as the benevolent sheriff, and Theodore Bikel as the prosecutor are all excellent actors wasted in roles that are basically plot functions.

Credits

A Miramax release of a Monument Pictures production in association with CineVox Entertainment. Produced by Michael Spielberg and Brad M. Gilbert. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein. Co-producer, Dieter Geissler. Directed by Jonathan Heap. Screenplay, Jeffrey Polman and Christopher Keyser, based on the story by Micahel Lieber. Camera (Deluxe color), Johnny Jensen; editor, Sharyn L. Ross; music, Hummie Mann; production design, Marina Kieser; art direction, David Seth Lazan; set decoration, Larry Dias; costume design, Ann Foley; sound (Ultra Stereo), Reinhard Stergar; casting, Rachel Abroms, Owens Hill. Reviewed at the Raleigh Studios, L.A., June 30, 1993. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 90 min.

Cast

Frank…..Donald Sutherland
Karen…………Amy Irving
Pete………..Rider Strong
Dan….Christopher McDonald
Calhoun…….Graham Greene
Gideon Lee…Theodore Bikel
Suzanna…….Gisele Kovach