Touchstone Pictures // 1999 // 126 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Margo Reasner (Retired) // November 27th, 1999
One man's mind is another man's mystery.
This psychological thriller brings two great actors together in an innovative way of telling a story. Although some might be turned off by the elements in the story or the way that it is told the quality of the acting alone is worth seeing and the movie will leave some viewers thinking.
Dr. Ethan Powell (Anthony Hopkins, The Mask of Zorro, Meet Joe Black, Silence of the Lambs), a primatologist, spent two years in the African jungle living with the gorillas until he was arrested for beating two men to death with a club. He spent a year in an overseas prison and during that time he didn't speak a word, not even to his family when they visited him. His family finally gets him transferred back to the U.S. were he ends up in a prison for the criminally insane. Once in the U.S. based correctional facility known as Harmony Bay (which is anything but...) Dr. Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding, Jr., As Good As It Gets, Jerry Maguire, A Murder of Crows) is able to land the career-making opportunity to do a psychiatric evaluation of Dr. Powell. Caulder is an intelligent, highly gifted psychiatric resident at the same facility that Dr. Powell was affiliated with before the arrest.
Once Caulder meets Powell and his daughter Lynn (Maura Tierney) it quickly becomes apparent that Powell was also a brilliant, highly gifted person obsessed with his career, to the detriment of his relationship with his family. Although deeply hurt and troubled by her father's rejection, Lynn still tries to help Caulder understand the man her father was before he left to study the gorillas.
This tale is told in an interesting and different manner from the usual Hollywood fare. This time we are shown the events in Dr. Caulder's life during the time that he is in contact with Dr. Powell. Threads of storylines are shown, but the events leading up to them and their conclusions are not stated directly, rather they are left for the viewer to fill in the missing pieces of what the motivations were or what the logical culmination of events lead to. For example, brutality in the prison is shown when Caulder visits and we see how he tries to deal with it, but we are only shown glimpses of where his actions might lead. Caulder also seems to have a growing relationship with Lynn, but how things work themselves out is also left up in the air.
What the moral of the story is or the basic theme is also left a mystery and the past experiences that a viewer brings with them will greatly influence what the perceived message is. Some might find it to be a movie about man's possible evolution from primates; another might find it to have an animal rights activist theme; while some might just view it as a "society is terrible" and "animals are wonderful" message. This isn't the kind of movie where you know who the bad guy is and are rooting for the good guy to win. In this movie everyone has a little bad and a little good mixed in and the environment that they find themselves in and how they perceive it determines what their actions are -- sort of reflective of how life really is. So, if you want to see a film where everything is defined and you can finish with a satisfied feeling that good triumphed over evil once more then you should skip this one because you're going to feel cheated. On the other hand, if you want to see some of the most extraordinary acting between two great actors and don't mind a little ambiguity then this will be your cup of tea.
Speaking of the acting...Hopkins puts in a believable and different performance that rises to his usual mark of excellence. When we first see him meet the gorilla group his submissive posture is right on the money and his gorilla blocking in the airport was very well done. It would have been very easy for him to fall into the Hannibal Lecter routine, and the prison setting unfortunately almost made me expect that character, but this prisoner carried a totally different set of emotional baggage. And if it's possible, Gooding's acting was just as good or maybe even a tad bit better; he certainly held his own in every scene. I bought the conflicts that his character was having, as well as his reactions to what was going on around him. Actually, everyone seemed quite comfortable in their own skin...even the characters that were doing the most outlandish things.
The video was developed as 4:3 software presented in a 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio (i.e., not enhanced for 16x9 TVs). The good news about this DVD is that the first time that I watched this on a widescreen I was so engrossed in the storyline that I was totally unable to comment on the video transfer or sound quality. The bad news is that when I went back and watched it for a second time, and paid attention, I found that the image was soft about 80% of the time with more than a few black and white random specks on the image. Happily I didn't notice any artifacting or bad shimmering. The sound, although presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, also didn't leave much to rave about. The only time that I noticed the back surrounds was during the jungle scenes and even then they were just a carryover of the front sound activity. There wasn't much separation of the sound either to report. And as far as extras go we are only offered a theatrical trailer in that area. This is really extraordinarily sad, because of all the movies that came out this year, a director's commentary for this one would have provided a real insight into what he was trying to say. One can only hope that this film is in some way recognized at the Oscars so that the studio has some motivation to go back and do a Special Edition of it. Otherwise we might have to live forever with this mediocre presentation of a fascinating film.
Strong and fascinating acting combined with an unusual story-telling method make this a definite rent, but only die-hard fans are going to be willing to shell out the extra money to own this lackluster presentation of the film.
The film itself is totally acquitted, but the studio is hereby ordered to hold 5% of this year's bonus back from the executive at Disney who decided to put out this version of the film until a Special Edition is released.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer