Without Evidence

Based on a real-life murder that has not been adequately resolved, Gill Dennis' feature debut, Without Evidence, is a suspenseful thriller that delves critically into the heart of the American legal process. To secure a theatrical release, this terrifically-acted picture, with strong conspiracy and cover-up subplots, needs to be recut and lose in the process about half an hour of its excessively long (2 hours and 12 minutes) running time.

Without Evidence may be the first movie to enlist in its opening and end credits a $1 million reward for “voluntary testimony leading to the apprehension, arrest, conviction and sentencing of the person(s) responsible for the murder of Michael Francke on January 18 or 19, l989.” This statement lends the true-life story extraordinary disturbing and horrifying dimensions, reinforcing the anxiety of many viewers about both the validity and fairness of the American justice system.

Tale begins in Florida, with the visit of Michael Francke (Ernie Garrett), director of Oregon's Department of Corrections, to his younger brother, Kevin (Scott Plank). Walking in the woods, Michael mentions in passing his concern about stumbling onto a suspicious operation within his office that has to do with drugs in prison. As expected, in the next scene, Kevin is informed over the phone that his brother had been murdered and his body found outside an office building.

Stepping into the classic tradition of American action heroes, Kevin drops everything–his construction business and none-too-happy wife–and goes to Salem, Oregon to investigate the case. The police hold that it was probably a case of robbery or burglary, when Michael was heading toward his car, and that Kevin need not worry because the situation is under control. However, when district attorney Dale Penn (Alan Nause) is reluctant to release the official autopsy report, Kevin becomes increasingly suspicious that the evasiveness of the authorities might point to a bigger and scarier problem, a cover-up of some wrongdoings within the Department itself.

Healthy suspense solidly builds up when additional characters are introduced into the already intricately involving case, particularly Liz Godlove (Anna Gunn), a beautiful blonde with whom Kevin ends up having an affair. A single mom, Liz tells Kevin that, in self-defense, she killed her violent lover, who had earlier confessed to a murder. Throughout the story, there's strong evidence that the murder was not only planned but also talked about
by some officials.

Neophyte helmer Dennis is good at creating an ominous mood, and he also shows ease in handling his leads, Plank as Kevin and Gunn as Liz, two attractive performers who demonstrate the assuredness of pros despite lack of big-screen experience. In a secondary role of a drug-addict, problematic youngster, Angelina Jolie (who's Jon Voight's daughter) is touching, especially in her encounters with Kevin and in the court scenes.

Problem is, helmer devotes almost indiscriminately equal attention and time to each and every minor incident and character, resulting in an overly long picture that tends to haul at the end and lose sight of its central and crucial issue: Framing the wrong man.

Tech credits are accomplished, particularly Victor Nunez's evocative lensing of the gloomy night sequences, and Franco Piersanti's foreboding score, immeasurably contribute to the overall mood of a film that bears some thematic resemblance to the landmark docu The Thin Blue Line.

In a shorter, tighter version, and with the right handling and marketing, this intriguingly complex drama, which suggests quite convincingly that the wrong man (Frank Gable) might be serving life sentence and the real murderer is still out there free, can reach appreciative audiences.