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  • Andres Benatar

Presumed Innocent (1990)

Can We Truly Know Justice? An Analysis

When the tagline of a courtroom thriller says “Some people would kill for love,” then it can only leave one to wonder if justice has any real place in the matter, considering that love is far more complex and chaotic as opposed to being pure in essence. When it comes to the criminal justice system in the United States, one must truly wonder if there is actually justice. Just the fact that the word “justice” itself is in the title alone feels redundant when even the smallest technicality can dismiss a criminal case that seems so obvious that not even a developmentally challenged person could deny the validity of the evidence that proved one argument over the more ridicules one. Presumed Innocent is not such a story. If anything, it merely poses the question of justice as opposed to personal feeling, and that notion is introduced through the opening line Harrison Ford’s Rusty Sabich delivers, “I'm a prosecutor. I'm part of the business of accusing, judging, and punishing. I explore the evidence of a crime and determine who is charged, who is brought to this room to be tried before peers. I present my evidence to the jury and they deliberate upon it. They must determine what really happened. If they cannot, we will not know whether the accused deserves to be freed or should be punished. If they cannot find the truth, what is our hope of justice?”

As simple as it would be to have justice determined simply by looking at the truth presented, that still leaves the notion of truth in question. As much as anyone can make the case that the truth is determined by facts, the realization that those same facts can either be distorted, misremembered, or even altered for a different agenda all together shows that there is nothing remotely full proof about the American justice system and how a prosecutor handles what is no doubt a difficult position. After all, they are pretty much determining the outcome of someone’s life on the basis of facts they gathered, and even then you have to take into account whether all or a majority of those facts were central in determining their ultimate decision.

Not Your Average Courtroom Thriller

Presumed Innocent is not like any courtroom thriller. Yes, there is a crime, there is a trial, and there is a final verdict. But, nothing is ever truly made clear, even when the facts are presented beyond argument. The narrative itself unfolds like an investigation that leaves a viewer wondering where it will go. No doubt the nature of the title Presumed Innocent combined with the enigmatic nature of the crime Harrison Ford’s Rusty Sabich is accused of only makes you wonder what deep mystery lies underneath the surface of a film that utilizes its noirish ambiguity to such perfection that as the mystery continues to dish out one fact after another that regardless of what the truth is, it is far more simple, despite not being what we would expect.

The easiest trap anyone watching presumed innocent could fall for was the game of deciding whether or not Rusty is in fact guilty of the violent murder he has been accused of. It’s an understandable temptation. But the sophisticated and morally ambiguous nature of the film would only insult its narrative quality if it were to rely on just that element when it is aiming for something deeper and far more terrifying when posed as a question rather than simply a statement.

When listening to the objective, yet the melancholically laced tone of voice that Harrison’s Ford’s omnisciently calm voice-over narration provides in the intro of the film, then it automatically invites the viewer into a story where the ending will no doubt be less of what they expected and one that is barely optimistic. The question of justice that Presumed Innocent is an interesting element given that it isn’t as tackled as much as the mystery surrounding Sabich’s involvement in the murder of his colleague Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi), and yet, it is easily presented through the highly emotional infatuation he had for a woman who wasn’t exactly presented as an innocent victim in the flashbacks that help illustrate the air of moral ambiguity present within a film like Presumed Innocent.

Who Was Carolyn Polhemus?

Naturally in every courtroom thriller involving some type of murder, then it’s only a given that the victim will most likely be dead before we ever get a chance to see them alive. Carolyn Polhemus is no exception. Another element a majority of courtroom thrillers often use is that they often portray the victim as either innocent or damaged in the sense of an audience sympathizing with whatever plight they were undergoing while they were alive in the moments leading up to their deaths. Now, although Carolyn Polhemus isn’t depicted as an evil person or even that of someone deserving of death, even though one character in the film refers to her trouble, she proves to be somewhat of a rare gem in the court-room thriller genre.

Presumed Innocent spares no expense in detailing how Rusty was romantically involved with Carolyn Polhemus. The affair is shown in full display as an exotic experience that leaves Rusty in a state of infatuation, which only leads to a broken sense of despair the second she ends it after detecting a lack of ambition suitable to her standards. As more details surrounding the type of person Carolyn Polhemus was, it becomes clear that she had what was presented as a unique but never overly played hunger for power. In addition to Rusty, Carolyn dangled in the beds of several law officials, including a judge played by Paul Winfield and Rusty’s boss played by the late Brian Dennehy.

Based on the sexual promiscuity of the character of Carolyn Polhemus, it would be easy to say that the film is giving a very sexist portrayal of an independent career woman. But that would be one-sided when most of the characters in Presumed Innocent are just that, they are presumed to be innocent. One simple glance at even the least morally suspicious characters alone is merely a simple presumption of innocence in light of what may really be going on behind the scenes. Plenty of moments outside the courtroom and in flashbacks depicting the rather unhealthy obsession Rusty formed once he was dumped for a woman, who despite her morally questionable behavior, still stood strong and self-actualized enough to tell a character played by Harrison Ford, the quintessential Holywood masculine archetype to simply grow up once she saw his infatuation hardly differed from that of a grade-schooler in love with their teacher.

Is Justice Truly Served In The End

In the end, Presumed Innocent isn’t a film about true justice. If anything, it’s about the question of what is justice, and whether we have the conviction in ourselves to truly pursue it, especially when certain biases can be used as justifications for ignoring it. This is made more evident in the ending twist of the film, where Rusty’s wife, Barbara (Bonnie Bedelia) who already knew about his prior affair confesses to being the murderer. In an emotionally disturbed yet equally exposition-heavy confession, she expresses the pain the affair caused and the repercussions of her violent murderous act. By the time a tear-filled Rusty accepts this reality, it is then made all the more clear throughout his ending narration “There was a crime, there was a victim and there is punishment.” The sad truth about this confession is that doesn’t feel like the justice we’re often used to, and that only makes the presentation of the notion of justice within Presumed Innocent a presumption worth exploring with caution.

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Andres Benatar is resident film expert. You can hear him on the 'Cinema 237' podcast - A podcast for cinephiles.

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