In the new thriller High Crimes, Morgan Freeman gives one of his now-patented performances — he’s loose, sly, at once watchful and unwatchful, stealthy as a cat. The first time we see Freeman, he‘s lying on a couch, dressed, with one hand behind his head and the other resting lightly on his groin. He’s watching Redd Foxx on television and he‘s laughing, and it’s clear from the look he shoots at the woman who‘s just walked in that he doesn’t care if anyone else gets the joke. The woman is Claire Kubik (Ashley Judd), a lawyer with a husband (Jim Caviezel) facing the death penalty. The husband‘s shady military past has led Claire to Freeman’s character, a rogue lawyer named Charlie Grimes, and if this were the film of our movie-fever dreams, it would lead her elsewhere, as well. Judd would harden her eyes the way she did for Michael Mann in Heat. She would stop flashing that beauty-queen smile, or at least smile wide as she flashed her legs wider, as she once did, famously, during the Academy Awards. She would get down, maybe a little dirty, and Freeman would stop playing guardian, wise manand absolute moral conscience. He would match Judd beat for beat, grind for grind. He would let loose the growl that always lies in wait at the back of his throat, and he wouldn‘t just pounce, he’d devour.
Reviewing the movies you want to see instead of those you have seen is a losing proposition, if for no other reason than it can keep the shadow movie playing in your head long after the actual credits have rolled, and who needs that? But it‘s also irresistible, even when a film doesn’t require radical revision. High Crimes doesn‘t need a full make-over; it’s got decent politics and doesn‘t rely on naked dead women for kicks, though its surprise ending is as shocking as boo. The cast is likable, the technique skillful, and the jazz-inflected soundtrack isn’t the usual frenzied noise you hear in many thrillers. There‘s none of the standard editing agitation you get in movies of this type, either. As a bonus, every so often director Carl Franklin tags the otherwise impersonal story with his initials — he throws in some oblique angles and quick zooms, and in one scene he even opens a window onto something altogether different. Charlie has been chasing down a lead, and the search has taken him to a motel room with an ex-convict and two hookers. He tries to get the guy warmed up, but all the con wants to know is why Charlie isn’t drinking the booze he keeps pouring. The lawyer‘s been on the wagon more than 400 days, but now he’s forced to fall off, and so he does. He laughs and drinks, slipping into a blurry timelessness that shatters the room into shards — into sweat-beaded cleavage, light shimmering in a whiskey glass, hollow laughter.
The room turns into a honky-tonk two minutes before closing, and as it does, Franklin makes us remember that this is the same director who made One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress, two of the better genre films of the ‘90s. Devil in a Blue Dress didn’t pull in big money, which is probably why it took three years before Franklin shot One True Thing, a well-intended snore, based on an Anna Quindlen novel that featured a nearly all-white cast. In that film, Franklin was trying to show he could direct white actors as well as black, which in any town but this one would be stating the obvious. That he coaxed nuance from Renee Zellweger while also keeping a lid on William Hurt should have alone proved his point. Judd is a better actor than Zellweger, though she doesn‘t take many roles that make her case; Freeman is, of course, better than just about anyone in movies. Since his breakout performance in 1987’s Street Smart, a film that prompted Pauline Kael to wonder if he was our greatest actor, Freeman has carved out a peculiar niche. In good and bad movies alike he elevates genre standards with low-key courtliness and an even lower-key menace, often while keeping company with a younger white actor. This is the second time he‘s been paired with Judd, and the two have a nice vibe together, even if the script — and the world — dictates they keep that vibe strictly Doris Day and Rock Hudson.
In High Crimes, Judd kisses Caviezel and sheds great glistening tears for his character, but comes most alive when she’s sharing the screen with Freeman. Turning Claire and Charlie‘s easy rapport into an interracial affair — which, in some respects, it already is — wouldn’t make the film better, but it might make it more honest and more interesting. One of the most depressing things about Monster‘s Ball was that its putatively uplifting ending was essentially reactionary, even nihilistic. Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton could only be happy after everyone else had split — children and lovers and parents together. Curiously, Thornton actually co-wrote and co-starred in One False Move, a film whose emotional power pivots on a far more complex and emotionally true interracial relationship. Although One False Move is almost as apocalyptic as Monster’s Ball, there‘s enormous richness and depth to how the characters live in their skins, and how they live in their skins alongside one another. There’s also ambiguity, which may be the quality American filmgoers loathe most in their movies. Everyone has his or her reasons in One False Move, but not everyone knows what those are, at least not every single minute of screen time. One of the nicer things about High Crimes is that while its blowout finale is telegraphed long before the first act ends, and too much else is just as obvious and bland, Judd, Freeman and Franklin never stop adding filigree. The big picture isn‘t much to look at, but the detailing isn’t bad.