This adaptation of Robert Whitlow's faith and justice bestseller is akin to an extended, middle-of-the-road Law and Order episode. The Trial is not a whodunit but a how-he-done-it packed with capable actors chewing through completely forgettable material. When The Trial inevitably finds its way to network rotation, viewers can wander in and out of the room without fear of missing crucial developments. Neither taxing to watch nor especially engrossing, The Trial won't cause much of a rise in either direction.
After his wife and two young sons are killed in a wreck, defense attorney Mac McClain (Matthew Modine) shutters his practice and contemplates suicide. A phone call from a local judge literally saves Mac from a bullet, and he reluctantly agrees to represent Pete Thomason (Randy Wayne), a young man charged with the murder of his girlfriend. The pair was found in a wrecked car, but the girl was strangled and Pete cannot remember the details because he was high at the time. Mac calls up his former investigator (Robert Forster) for some help on the case, and Pete quickly rejects the prosecutor's (Bob Gunton) plea offer guaranteeing him a life sentence instead of death.
The Trial goes to great pains to get its legal proceedings right, and, for the most part, it does. Unfortunately, all the attention to detail doesn't always translate into riveting drama, and much of the film's courtroom happenings are about as mundane as a motion to continue a case. Director Gary Wheeler is careful to explain that capital trials are bifurcated and that hearsay evidence is often prohibited, but he forgets that showing is more effective than telling.
Modine is solid in the lead role, and he would fit in well on a cable legal procedural. Mac's struggle to regain his faith is one of The Trial's central themes, and the film is being sold as a Christian legal thriller. Whitlow is known for writing Christian novels, but The Trial tows the line in this regard. Those turned off by Christian overtones won't find much to gripe about, and those looking for the next Left Behind will likely be disappointed.
The Trial's message may be subtle, but its structure is not. The film builds through Pete's trial before reaching its climax, at which time the rug is pulled out from under Mac and the antagonist fully explains his actions and motives. This third-act reveal is not unexpected in a film so closely resembling an hour-long crime drama, but the reckoning isn't especially well explained. No matter, as there is such little mystery in The Trial that I was willing to take it at face value. The best way to rate The Trial is with a shrug of the shoulders.
Fox releases The Trial with a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on a single-layer DVD. Detail is acceptable and skin tones accurate. Blacks are not especially deep but colors are generally well saturated. The image often looks flat, but I noticed few instances of shimmering and little edge enhancement. Compression artifacts are occasionally an issue due to the disc's single-layer constrictions.
The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 track is fairly subdued. Dialogue is clear and appropriately balanced, and the surrounds occasionally come to life to support ambient noise or the score. Most of the action happens up front, but the film demands little else. English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles also are available.
The only extra is a straightforward, feature-length commentary by Director Gary Wheeler, author Robert Whitlow and writer Mark Freiburger.
Don't be alarmed if you find yourself wondering whether a disc of Law and Order episodes found its way into your DVD player. The Trial, about a defense attorney struggling with the loss of his family and a difficult capital case, contains the even-tempered courtroom drama of that show but does little to justify its extension to feature length. Fans of Robert Whitlow's Christian literature may be disappointed at The Trial's lack of faith, and the film is the very definition of pedestrian. Rent It if you must.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.