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A laughing jury is never a hanging jury.

Find Me Guilty

(SPOILERS) I’m trying to recall when I last had the displeasure of viewing such a horribly lit movie. It took me longer than it should have to become engrossed in Find Me Guilty, because every early scene screamed of sets and soundstages in the tattiest, cardboard, amateurish fashion. Damages Season Four sprang to mind, which looked ghastly and cheap. Find Me Guilty looks equally ghastly and cheap. Which is a shame, as it is otherwise very good.

Making it a complete contrast to Sidney Lumet’s final film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which looked just fine but was absolutely ghastly (sorry, Devil fans, I know you are legion). You won’t find the stylistic grit characteristic of a Lumet movie here. Instead, this is big and broad and lunky, rather like Vin Diesel’s affable performance as irrepressible gangster Jackie DiNorscio, already in prison on drug charges at the time of the United States v. Anthony Accetturo et al trial and opting to defend himself, something that proves a hit with the jury but causes immense friction, not only with the prosecution, but also the judge and mob boss Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco, essentially Accetturo).

Calabrese has a particular beef with Jackie on account of his defection to another mob family, while Jackie must contend with the evidence given by his druggie cousin Tony (Raul Esparza), who attempted to kill Jackie in the opening scene. DA Kierney (Linus Roache) has a beef with Jackie because he’s making a mockery of his serious trial – the longest federal trial in American legal history at 21 months (it lasted from 1986-88).

Find Me Guilty is mainly known – by those who know it – as the movie that proves Vin can act. And it does. He’s funny, charismatic, and kind of a lunk, and it’s easy to get the gist of how DiNorscio charmed the jury. That said, he also looks patently ridiculous, like he’s auditioning for My Blue Heaven 2. His toupée is absurd, sitting atop his enormous heed, and he’s such a big guy (who piled on pounds for the role too) that his prison costuming looks like it’s made from tablecloths.

Lumet co-penned the screenplay, often using verbatim courtroom dialogue, but he conspicuously fails to create a clear sense of why the jury reaches the decision they do, partly because we aren’t privy to their deliberations, but partly because we’re never really given a sense of the scope of the trial (which essentially charged the entire crime family with racketeering). That may be because it was a sprawling mess.

Again, it’s difficult to tell because Lumet simply makes Roach a purveyor of 2-D villainy (he even takes poor Jackie’s armchair from his cell, which he needs for his bad back!) It’s unclear just what it is that gets them off. Lack of evidence? Jury sympathy? A combination of the two? The jury debated for only fourteen hours, when days were expected. At the time, it was suggested ″Apparently the jury just resented the length (of the trial) and the breadth of the indictment″. So Lumet may not have been wrong not to pin it down. It’s still rather dissatisfying, though.

Lumet’s clearly on these hoodlums’ side against an inherently corrupt system, but the deficits in production value contribute to making Fine Me Guilty seem less sharp that it probably was on paper. It was shot on film, but somehow DP Ron Fortunato made it look horrid, like it was shot last week on a home video camera, killing the necessary period sense. Having said that, the use of When Your Smiling rather ironically makes it seem like a cheapskate filmed play for HBO, one that debuted somewhere around the late ’80s/early ’90s.

Lumet has some considerable supporting talent to draw upon. Roache can do nothing with what he’s got, but Ron Silver is great as the sympathetic judge, Peter Dinklage engaging as the defence counsel and Anabella Sciorra cameos winningly as Jackie’s ex. Best of the bunch is Rocco, though, spitting daggers as a threateningly real, properly convincing Scorsese gangster (he previously played Moe Greene in The Godfather). If Vin seems like a cartoon at times (a gagster, not a gangster), that’s exactly how Nick sees him.

Lumet was 84 when he directed the movie, which may not be in Clint’s rarefied league, but is still pretty impressive. He hadn’t really wowed with a movie at that point since 1990’s Q&A, though. Many see his final picture as a belated return to form, but I regard it as a rather sordid, distasteful wake of a sign off. Find Me Guilty, had it been a little more polished, could have been that parting gem.

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