Daniel Henshall

Defending Jacob (2020) s01e07 – Job

Finally the start of the courtroom episodes, which are apparently going to be two because it’s the second-to-last episode. It opens with a flashback to Pablo Schreiber with a goatee getting advice from—oh, look, they were friendly once—Chris Evans. Evans gives Schreiber a list of things to work on so if you want to wait to see if Schreiber uses them against Jaeden Martell… He uses at least one.

I’m not sure about the rest. I lost interest in tracking them.

It’s trial time and the “good guys” feel ready. Cherry Jones continues to be great and Schreiber’s a good bad guy; Daryl Edwards is good as the judge. Ben Taylor’s really good as the friend of Martell who’s got the most damning testimony, which surprises Jones, Evans, and Michelle Dockery. Turns out Martell wasn’t being forthcoming about all the possible evidence against him and it’s a big problem. It’s also a big problem because Evans should’ve found it but didn’t actually do the work to find out about it. And he never told Dockery about any of it, which eventually leads to her saying how their whole marriage is a shame because they’re only together to… pretend it’s a fairytale. Or something.

Dockery and Evans are nap-inducing when they’re alone together—or icky when they’re having weird sex scenes all over the house—so it’s a really disinteresting argument scene.

Other important developments this episode include J.K. Simmons calling to check up on the trial, the cops tracking down professional thug (who’s following Evans and Dockery) William Xifaras, and Patrick Fischler and Megan Byrne fighting in the courtroom. They’re the dead kids parents. Might be more interesting if it was there story too, especially since we still don’t know how Fischler decided Martell was guilty the day after the murder or whatever. Fischler’s good but he’s barely in the show.

It ends with a big surprise—though not really, not if you’ve got a fourth grader’s understanding of foreshadowing—involving pedophile suspect Daniel Henshall. But at least it’s about to be over.

Defending Jacob (2020) s01e06 – Wishful Thinking

Last episode they were at like seven weeks from the trial, now it’s ten days before the trial. Apparently nothing interesting happened in five weeks, which is believable given “Defending Jacob.”

The episode opens with Chris Evans and lawyer Cherry Jones looking at the dead kid’s cellphone, which prosecuting attorney Pablo Schreiber was going to keep secret because Schreiber’s a dick. Schreiber also baits Evans about his dad being in prison and Evans roughs him up. Interestingly, 6’5” Schreiber is wearing lifts to be even taller than 6’ Evans. Just want to know whose idea the lifts were.

Then Betty Gabriel bonds with Evans over incarcerated family—her brother’s in prison, which she apparently told him over the years and he didn’t share about his dad. Because they’re not friends.

Gabriel also warns Evans Schreiber has something great in the case because he’s overconfident.

Through in some quick distraction about Jaeden Martell going online with a crappy self-made meme based on American Psycho: The Movie because American Psycho: The Movie is big with the tweens in 2020. Though I suppose it’s at least not a Paramount release. The family talks and watches multiple Paramount eighties favorites (Paramount produced the show for Apple TV+). Though this episode has Daniel Henshall watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers when the cops search his house because Hale Lytle comes forward with some information about Henshall. Lytle and mom Therese Plaehn are some of the better actors in the show.

Anyway—Martell going online. Evans yells at him about it. It’s a thing.

There’s also a chase scene when a car is following Michelle Dockery on her daily jog. It ought to be a good scene. It’s terrible. Morten Tyldum’s is terrible. Thank goodness the story’s not more thrilling, the show would be even worse.

The end has shrink Poorna Jagannathan giving Evans and Dockery the summary of her findings on Martell. It’s the Friday before the trial or something, and Martell’s birthday, which doesn’t matter at all. Except to show Martell’s character development so far in the series—thanks to his ordeal, he’s started liking metaphor in literature.

As Chris Evans, in the grand jury bookend, tries to emote, it occurred to me this show would be amazing—with all its problems—if only they’d gotten Edward Norton.

Defending Jacob (2020) s01e02 – Everything is Cool

About twenty minutes into this episode it felt really familiar then I realized I was just watching scenes from a bad Presumed Innocent remake. What with Chris Evans and his investigators and his coworkers and whatnot—it just feels like a retread of that film (and novel). I’ll bet source novel author William Landay read the Scott Turow novel.

“Defending Jacob” teleplay writer Mark Bomback? I feel like he maybe saw the movie.

The episode opens still in the flashback. Chris Evans has just discovered son Jaeden Martell’s classmates think he killed their other classmate and are posting about it online. He’s also found a knife in Martell’s bedroom.

So Evans lays awake all night and in the morning tells Michelle Dockery, who asks if he should let his boss know. You know, the district attorney (Sakina Jaffrey), who he promised he’d stay impartial with. He says, no. And then pretty soon destroys evidence, at which point I started to wonder if they realized Evans is the bad guy and basically “Defending Jacob” is basically a heroic version of Brock Turner’s parents.

Complete with Evans racing in his car from being suspended—not even for the evidence destruction but because there’s physical evidence Evans didn’t know about because he was doing such a bad job on the case because he’s apparently a bad prosecuting attorney (Turow deep cut)-racing home to get there before a search warrant can be executed.

The funny thing about Bomback’s abject lack of understanding about… well, anything really, is how the accusations of Martell didn’t go viral after being discovered online and sitting there for eighteen hours. Instead, the Internet just took a break for everyone to sleep and so on. It’s something.

Then there’s unregistered pedophile Daniel Henshall, who Evans brings in to question and the cops can’t break him before lawyer Cherry Jones shows up so they just let him go. Turns out he’s a good suspect because he’s got photos of the victim on his iPhone (does Apple know the pedophile’s rocking an Xs Max?) but they just let him go. Without even getting him to register.

So Bomback’s definitely bad at the plotting, but was Landay bad at it too? Because outside upper middle White people—if your D.A. is speeding through the streets in a badass Audi, maybe audit him—who don’t know their kids, I’m missing who this story would be compelling for? Like, was the novel supposed to be better than a John Grisham?

The Babadook (2014, Jennifer Kent)

So much of The Babadook is so good, it almost doesn’t matter the film’s third act is a series of little disasters. Director (and writer) Kent does such an exquisite job with the film until then, she can basically coast to the end credits. The Babadook is a spectacularly made film; Kent’s direction, Simon Njoo’s editing, Radek Ladczuk’s photography, Jed Kurzel’s music, and Alex Holmes’s production design are all phenomenal. Most of the leads Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman’s performances are great. For most of the film, Kent finds a perfect balance between being creepy and defining that creepiness. In the end, the creepiness is symbolic, which is it’s own problem, somewhat separate from the other third act issues. Except intricately tied to them because Kent’s finish for the film means there’s only so much she can do in the third act. Given the wobbly ending, it’s even more impressive how much of Babadook is good. Kent really does delay having to give into the finale building until the last possible moment.

Davis and Wiseman are almost always onscreen. Davis is a single mom, Wiseman is her somewhat strange six year-old (he’s about to turn seven, cue plot point); his father (Davis’s husband, Benjamin Winspear in flashbacks) died driving Davis to the hospital to give birth. She’s haunted by it. Wiseman’s haunted by it. It’s all very heavy. And kind of shocking it wasn’t a problem for Davis until Wiseman’s seventh birthday. She really delayed her breakdown.

The inciting action for the film is Davis reading Wiseman a story about The Babadook from a mysterious pop-up book Wiseman finds on the shelf. It’s a majorly disturbing book, even for a regular child and Wiseman’s extra sensitive. As the film starts, pre-Babadook read, Davis (and Wiseman) haven’t been getting good sleep. He’s scared of monsters and makes sure Davis knows it. Wiseman’s even building monster-fighting weapons; Rube Goldberg style. They’re important for the plot–and the character development (the friction between Wiseman and Davis). It’s a great detail. Babadook is full of great details. Kent’s writing of the first seventy minutes (the film runs just around ninety total) is fabulous.

For most of the film–even when it’s not–the film’s from Davis’s perspective. She’s trying to deal with the social awkwardness of Wiseman (he’s obsessed with monsters, which is kind of underdeveloped as it turns out; monsters under the bed or in the closets, monsters). Once they read the story, his awkwardness and behaviors escalate. He gets kicked out of school, he gets into it with his cousin and loses his aunt as a babysitter (the relationship between Davis and sister Hayley McElhinney is strangely more for comedic stress relief than character development). So by the second half of The Babadook, it’s just Davis and Wiseman alone together in their scary house where scary things are starting to happen.

Of course, there’s also the chronic lack of sleep thing, which is also an underdeveloped part of the ground situation. Kent avoids excessive exposition… but she also excessively avoids exposition. That approach lets her get symbolic with things, sure, but it leaves the film without much else, at least symbolically.

One of the most nightmarishly successful things Kent does in the film comes in that problematic third act, as Davis starts to entirely breakdown, becoming verbally abusive towards Wiseman (and threatening physical abuse, though only the audience knows its because she’s read more of the Babadook book). Most of the action takes place over one night. Kent doesn’t track time, instead following Davis’s extremely sleep deprived perception of the night. Kent keeps the same style devices the film’s had until this point, making The Babadook all of a sudden feel like this endless, horrible, threatening night. It’s fantastic filmmaking.

It just doesn’t add up narratively.

The acting is good. It’s all on Davis and Wiseman. She’s fantastic until the denouement; it’s not Davis’s fault. Kent just doesn’t figure out a way to bring the character back from the brink. From over the brink. Davis is fine in those scenes. Effective. She’s just no longer building this complex character, she’s doing muted pantomime. Even when the film’s outlandish, it’s never outlandish. Kent keeps it in check.

Wiseman goes from having incredibly loud, with concerning behaviors (again, one of Babadook’s stumbling blocks is how he and Davis never had to serious address them before the film’s present action) to being quietly terrified. It’s a strange character shift, like he forgets how to express himself. Some of it is a plot point–sedatives–but some of the shift is just so Davis’s own concerning behaviors can take centerstage.

The film’s a technical marvel. Kent, editor Njoo, and cinematographer Ladczuk do true wonders with the digital video. They make Babadook expressionistic while never breaking with the reality constraints of the setting. Sometimes it’s how the scene’s lighted, sometimes it’s how it’s cut. Kent directs the hell out of this picture. The script has nowhere near as much ambition, which doesn’t matter for most of the film. Between the acting and the filmmaking, the script not having the same intensity or energy doesn’t hamper The Babadook. The rest makes up for it.

Until the finale. And then there’s only so much the acting can do before the script trips it up. And then the script takes down the filmmaking too. Not entirely, of course, but sadly, just enough.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jennifer Kent; director of photography, Radek Ladczuk; edited by Simon Njoo; music by Jed Kurzel; production designer, Alex Holmes; produced by Kristina Ceyton and Kristian Moliere; released by Umbrella Entertainment.

Starring Essie Davis (Amelia), Noah Wiseman (Samuel), Barbara West (Mrs. Roach), Hayley McElhinney (Claire), Daniel Henshall (Robbie), Chloe Hurn (Ruby), and Benjamin Winspear (Oskar).


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