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MIRANDA’S VICTIM

Producers: Alexandra Guarnieri, Brian Drillinger, Valerie Debner, Michelle Danner and George Kolber   Director: Michelle Danner   Screenplay: J. Craig Styles   Cast: Abigail Breslin, Ryan Phillippe, Luke Wilson, Emily VanCamp, Mireille Enos, Enrique Murciano, Josh Bowman, Brent Sexton, Sebastian Quinn, Taryn Manning, Nolan Gould, Dan Lauria, Michael Mulheren, Kyle MacLachlan, Andy Garcia and Donald Sutherland   Distributor: Vertical

Grade: B-

The case of Miranda v. Arizona, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966 on a 5-4 vote, is remembered as a crucially important contribution to the rights of those suspected of crimes, mandating that they must be notified by police of the right to remain silent and request legal counsel before being questioned.  The decision is rightly recognized as a watershed in the delineation of citizens’ rights, but was controversial when it was announced and has been ever since.  “Miranda’s Victim” is not only about how the decision was reached, but also about its societal ramifications.

Michelle Danner’s film follows the case from the 1963 crime of which Ernesto Miranda was accused—the abduction and rape of an eighteen-year old Maricopa woman—through his death in a barroom brawl in 1976, and hews to the legal facts fairly closely, even if some conversations have been invented and some details altered or omitted by screenwriter J. Craig Styles.  But while it dramatizes the investigation that led Detectives Carroll Cooley (Enrique Murciano) and Wilfred Young (here renamed Sergeant Nealis, and played by Brent Sexton) to identify Miranda (Sebastian Quinn) as their chief suspect and the means by which they elicited his confession, as well as the trial in which he was convicted despite the efforts of lawyer Alvin Moore (Andy Garcia), the real focus, as the title indicates, is on the victim, Trish Weir (Abigail Breslin).  In doing so the movie implicitly raises the question—the basis of much of the criticism about the decision—of whether the Supreme Court created an imbalance that privileged the rights of the accused over justice for victims.

Breslin is excellent as Trish Weir.  Her abduction as she walked from the bus that had brought her home from her job at a local movie theatre, and the rape that followed, are depicted discreetly but tellingly, and the reaction of her mother Zeola (Mireille Enos), who urges her not to report the incident for fear of injuring her reputation, is shockingly commonplace of its time; fortunately her sister Ann (Emily VanCamp) feels differently and encourages her to go to the hospital (the brusque doctor who examines here there is played by Dan Lauria) and then to the police. 

The result is the identification of Miranda as the chief suspect, his interrogation and confession, and his initial conviction in the trial that pitted Moore against prosecutor Lawrence Turoff (Luke Wilson).  But the outcome in turn elicits an appeal led by the American Civil Liberties Union, which leads to the Supreme Court decision announced by Chief Justice Earl Warren (Kyle MacLachlan).  It requires the retrial of Miranda with his confession suppressed and the accused now defended by hotshot attorney John Flynn (Ryan Phillippe), and Weir forced to relive her trauma.  In a trial presided over stoically by Judge Laurance Wren (Donald Sutherland), evidence provided by Miranda’s common-law wife Twila Hoffman (Taryn Manning) probes decisive, leading to a second conviction and incarceration.  Miranda is in time paroled and killed, his murderer ironically never caught.

“Miranda’s Victim” is, from a cinematic perspective, not terribly impressive: Danner’s direction is prosaic, Teferi Seifu’s editing solemn and Pierluigi Malavasi’s cinematography pallid.  And the approach is at times awfully heavy handed: having Weir, at the beginning of the film, peek into the theatre’s auditorium just in time to see Gregory Peck, as Atticus Finch, speaking about the integrity of the judicial system in securing justice, is more than a trifle obvious.  One might also quarrel with the portrayal of the original police treatment of Miranda: as shown here, the caution with which Cooley and Nealis work to stay within existing rules comes across as almost lovingly old-fashioned, like Jack Webb might have dramatized it in “Dragnet.”

Nonetheless the period detail of Lily Gueria and Rick Butler’s production design and Jennifer Leigh-Scott’s costumes is convincing, and the performances are generally strong, with Breslin getting solid support from Wilson, Phillippe, Garcia, Sutherland, Manning and most of the supporting cast, including Quinn, despite a tendency to depict Miranda in a more favorable light than perhaps he deserved. In what amounts to a cameo MacLachlan makes Warren rather too smugly self-righteous, and Enos overdoes the pushiness of Weir’s mother (as does Josh Bowman the rage of her embarrassed husband).  But overall the acting is more subdued.

So while as a piece of filmmaking this is just workmanlike, it represents an earnest treatment of an important legal precedent and an affecting portrait of a heroic young woman.  

FOE

Producers: Kerry Kohansky-Roberts, Garth Davis, Emile Sherman and Iain Canning   Director: Garth Davis   Screenplay: Iain Reid and Garth Davis   Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Paul Mescal and Aaron Pierre   Distributor: Amazon MGM Studios

Grade: D

When even two actors as fine as Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal can’t breathe life into a script, something is definitely wrong with it.  Heaven knows they expend enormous amounts of energy as Henrietta and Junior, a troubled couple living on a parched farm somewhere in the nearly-deserted American Midwest in 2065.  The earth has been devastated by global warming, and they’re trying to survive on what they earn working at jobs off the land—Junior on an assembly-line in a drab chicken-processing plant, and Hen as a waitress at a truck-stop diner.  Their relationship has grown increasingly testy.

It’s made more so when they get an unexpected visitor—Terrance (Aaron Pierre), the representative from one of the all-powerful corporations engaged in establishing space stations where humans will live in the future.  As part of the process of experimenting with how such stations will operate, Junior has somehow been selected as a possible member of an upcoming group of inhabitants for a two-year trial run—an offer, it seems, that can’t be refused.  But to secure the position, he’ll have to undergo vetting, a two-year process of scrutiny.

Precisely what happens in the first year isn’t made clear, but at the beginning of the second Terrance shows up to announce that he’ll now be staying, watching and interrogating them.  Junior is especially irritated by the process, especially since it appears that nearby farms—abandoned, one supposes—are being torched and workers replaced with AI replicants.  He’s even more upset when Terrance announces that when he’s taken off for his two-year stint on the station, Hen won’t be accompanying him; but she won’t be left alone—an AI version of him will take up residence to keep her company.

Matters seem to be spiraling out of control when the plot introduces a major turn that may surprise, but is so ineptly staged that it proves bewildering, not only as it occurs but as you try to figure it out afterward.  In narrative terms, “Foe” vacillates between overwrought melodramatics and enigmatic bafflement.      

Perhaps Iain Reid’s 2018 novel, from which he’s fashioned the screenplay with director Garth Davis, had merit, but this big-screen adaptation proves a murky, pretentious bore, like a script for “The Twilight Zone” that Rod Serling would have tossed into the wastebasket.  A good deal of effort has been expended to instill some depth to the thing—certainly Ronan and Mescal act up a storm as the troubled couple, and Pierre brings a silkily smooth tone of malevolence to their visitor.  Technically, too, “Foe” shows some imagination.  The Australian locations are creepily desolate, Patrice Vermette’s production design and Alice Babidge’s costumes add to the sense of misery, and so does the score by Oliver Coates, Park Jiha and Agnes Obel.

But as the film grinds on, paced with an air of grim solemnity by Davis and editor Peter Sciberras, it grows more and more opaque and abstruse.  It’s possible that a second or third viewing would allow one to puzzle out how the parts fit together and what they’re intended to mean, but the level of tedium that repeated viewings would entail outweighs any hope of enlightenment.

It’s with a feeling of despondency that you leave a film like “Foe.”  It’s obviously intended to frame provocative questions in a way that will stimulate mature audiences, and the level of expertise that’s been lavished on it, both in front of the camera and behind it, is substantial.  But that merely makes its abject failure all the more dispiriting.