25 March 2006 | MisterWhiplash
solid courtroom drama focused (successfully) on character and a little more
It's amazing to see certain actors working with a director like the veteran Sidney Lumet (if it's appropriate to use for him who knows, though this is his latest film, at 81, over a near 50 year career), and see really intriguing, special things happening on screen. Actors like Pacino, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, and Peter Finch among many others undoubtedly have other noteworthy performances in other films, but in the work they've done with Lumet there's something that connects just right, to get that full touch reaching into the character and pulling out the humanity, or lack thereof. Vin Diesel, in this case, has possibly his most convincing and on-spot performance to date and, with the exception of his supporting role in Boiler Room, goes beyond the typically macho-roles of his career in the past several years. He is a tough guy in this, true, and Jackie DiNorscio has the life of a criminal to him. But in the story presented in the film, of this man defending himself in the longest trial in American history, it's essential that the actor playing him gets it right with the emotional connections of the character, of being truthful. Diesel gets that right, in a performance that has that gangster quality (err, 'gagster' as DiNorsci refers himself as), but is also has a certain fascinating complexity that the character of, for example, the prosecuting attorney, could never have.
Still, Lumet captures this ensemble with enough nuance and well-spun, real dialog, for two movies. It's not at all strange to see him doing a courtroom drama, as it reaches back to his first film 12 Angry Men. This time however there is a difference in the focus on a story lasting three years, and the evidence in the sprawling, elephantine case against the crime families is not as crucial for getting involved in the film as the people who make up the case and courtroom. There are at least a few character actors providing some terrific work, like Ron Silver as the judge, or Peter Dinklage as one of the defense attorneys. And while amid a scene or shot here and there that could've been lost or put on the cutting room floor (it's hard to pinpoint which after a first viewing without notes), there are at least a few that do provide some extra interest that most other filmmakers would've lost. The detail of the one mobster who becomes ill and has to come in every day to court on a stretcher is one thing. Or the detail of the importance of a chair in Jackie's prison cell.
And in this mix there are a few scenes that rank up with being some of the more dramatically perfect scenes Lumet has done, chiefly by letting the actors- who have inhabited the roles to the point of doubtless believability- just do their work. Two that come to mind are when the judge informs Jackie about the death of his mother, and how what Diesel doesn't show to the audience is even more important than what is (I'm reminded of the scene towards the end of Serpico where he gets the badge). Another is when Jackie is questioning his cousin on the stand. The filming of this scene isn't all that complex, but the dynamic between the two characters is, and the right notes are just there between the two actors. By the end of Find Me Guilty, I didn't think I saw an outright masterpiece like some of the director's other films. Neverhtheless, I also knew that I had seen an extremely confident and very good piece of work that brings out what's dependable in Lumet and what's unexpected in an actor like Diesel. Not to mention that, here and there, the film is quite funny. 8.5/10