Benefit of the Doubt (1993)

After 22 years in prison, Frank Braswell (Donald Sutherland) talks his way out, alleging that he is ready to be a responsible mature father to Karen (Amy Irving), the daughter whose testimony put him away for the murder of his wife. He still maintains the death was a drunken accident and, after all this time, Karen has her doubts too. Her life has turned out pretty rotten: she's a single parent waitress in a titty bar and her love interest is Christopher McDonald, the creepy husband from Thelma and Louise.

No sooner has she resolved to forgive and forget and let Frank play Grandad to her tough kid than Sutherland's trademarked wicked grin and glowing eyes are suggesting that he might be an even more dangerous psycho loon than even the courts suggested, especially when he takes to pitching his daughter's surplus suitors into industrial grinding machines.

Sutherland is among the busiest direct to video actors in the world, and it's something of a shock to see this, one of nature's support titles, actually getting a theatrical release. Big Don played a similar scary funny role in Quicksand: No Escape, which was a far better film and never got near the inside of a projector. Any interest one might have in seeing Sutherland's crazy act or wondering just how desperate Amy Irving is to accept such an unflattering role dissipates rapidly as the ridiculous but unexciting plot winds on, with the is he or isn't he? element ditched almost from the first as Sutherland flashes back to the original crime so we can see what a depraved, incipiently incestuous swine he is.

This is one of those movies where the police, represented by perennial Native American Graham Greene (oddly cast as an Irish cop), are so thick that the murderer has to be an absolute imbecile to let them get so near to catching him. All the characters display a remarkable obtuseness as various elements from The Stepfather and Cape Fear (not to mention White of the Eye) come into play, and everyone hikes out through the gorgeous Arizona desert to a tourist attraction lake for a picturesque but bluntly staged final power boat chase and cliff top confrontation. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Jonathan Heap (change that name!) is guilty.

First Published In: Empire no.54 (December 1993) p.43

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