Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
Rob Van Winkle takes a look at a Russian film, and ends up mourning the state of those that come from the US.
At this point in the USA, it has almost become a cliché to lament how our entertainment has been edited and jump-cut into oblivion, all in the interest of appealing to the MTV (and now post-MTV) Generation. We have come to expect that most movies are going to be filled with high-speed car chases that can’t be tracked, massive battle scenes with no point-of-reference, and computer-generated effects that defy all plausibility. We complain about these things all the time, and yet there is a 99.99% chance that come year’s end, the number one grossing movie will feature each and every one of these things. In other words, this is Michael Bay’s world whether we like it (or him) or not.
Nowhere is this dynamic more clear than when watching a movie like 12, a Russian film that does away with flash in favor of relaxed, character-based storytelling. Needless to say, this movie could NEVER be made in Hollywood today.
12 is the story of a dozen guys who are selected as the jury on what appears to be an open-and-shut case: a boy is accused of murdering his adopted father, and the prosecution has a weapon, a motive and several eyewitnesses. Everyone is so sure of the outcome that, as the jurors are led into the school gymnasium that doubles as the deliberation room, several of them are on their phones, making plans for the rest of the afternoon. Of course, as anyone who knows the source material (or has even a rudimentary understanding of the art of storytelling) can tell you, it isn’t quite that simple.
At first, only one juror votes not guilty, much to the chagrin of everyone else in the room. He explains that, given the fact that a young man’s life hangs in the balance of their decision, he simply wasn’t comfortable with coming to a consensus so quickly. A recount is ordered…and the conversations begin.
What happens next won’t come as any major surprise. As the movie (and the day) winds on, the jurors slowly shift their beliefs as the supposedly airtight facts fail under scrutiny, and reasonable doubt creeps into their previous conviction. If the movie were at its heart a legal thriller, then this would make for a very tired story structure.
Luckily, 12 uses law as little more than a device to get these men stuck in the same room together. From there, it reveals itself for what it really is: a layered and nuanced character study. Slowly, as the time and tedium gets to these dozen guys, they start to open up. Be it through heated arguments or moments of quiet reflection, each man reveals something of himself, showing why he has voted the way he has, and why he ultimately changes his mind.
But if this sounds familiar, it is because this film is based on 12 Angry Men, one of the most famous plays/movies in American history. So if this is the case, you might be asking, how can I make the claim that this movie could never be made in our country today? I have two answers to that question:
The Pacing – I hate to say this, but there is a great possibility that most audiences today would walk out of this movie complaining that it was “boring” and “slow.” While I would argue about the former, I can’t really dispute the latter; the problem is that by and large, Americans today think those two terms are interchangeable. This IS a slow movie by Hollywood standards, in that nothing much happens, per se. The director and cinematographer take their time with the storytelling, allowing scenes to simmer on a low heat with slow panning shots that highlight substance over flash. And the actors make the most of this, digging into their respective monologues with the relish of a gourmand tucking into a five-star meal. Because of this, each successive moment of characterization feels like a revelation.
Another aspect of the pacing worth mentioning is the length of the movie; 12 clocks in at a whopping 2 and a half hours. But when you watch the movie, it’s not the run time that strikes you, but rather the way that the scenes are allowed to breathe. Small moments are added into the overall picture (a loud noise causes the guard to check up on the group, etc.) that would almost certainly have been cut (if filmed at all) for a straight US release. And yet, by including them, it adds up to a much more realistic film, because how can you tell a story about men trapped in a room together for hours on end at a brisk pace, and have it feel real?
The “Russian”-ness – 12 might be based on an American play, but make no mistake: this is a Russian movie through and through. First off, the case these men are arguing involves politics and prejudices that we know little of over here. Specifically, the defendant is a Chechen refugee accused of killing his adopted Russian father. Needless to say, the jurors are Russian, and many of them consider Chechens unwelcome in their country. As the airtight case becomes flimsier and flimsier upon scrutiny, some of the men change their minds willingly, while others must come to terms with the fact that they WANT him to be guilty, no matter what the evidence shows.
Another element of the movie unique to its world is the ending. The source material essentially ends at the point when plausible deniability creeps into each of the jurors’ heads, but 12 takes it one step further. By the end, the numbers have shifted so that only one man still holds out for a guilty verdict. However, instead of being the last holdout to old thinking, he is actually thinking about the boy himself, and wondering if the ramifications of exoneration will be worse than a prison sentence. While we never learn the answer to this question, we get the impression that these jurors, thrown together by chance, are now linked inextricably by the time they shared, and the responsibility they now hold.
In short, 12 is a terrific movie that looks and feels unlike anything you’ll see coming out of the US for the foreseeable future. If you’re the sort of person who laments the rapid fire filmmaking seen in every other Hollywood movie, take the time to find and see this one. it’s a breath of fresh air that reminds you that sometimes, a story is about the story, rather than the effects around it.