Suspense is not the strongest suit of “Benefit of the Doubt,” a lackluster psychological thriller that uses the format of a TV-styled family melodrama but fails to target the gut or the mind. Predictable concept and mediocre production values should result in modest B.O. results, though a strong performance by Amy Irving might translate into potent video rentals.
Initially interesting setup has Frank Braswell (Donald Sutherland) paroled after 22 years in prison. Accused of killing his wife, Sutherland’s conviction was helped by the testimony of his daughter Karen (Amy Irving), who still believes he is guilty.
A single mother working as a cocktail waittress in a strip joint, Irving dreads the return of her father to Cottonwood, a small Arizona town. The idea of seeing him again not only revives haunting childhood nightmares, but also threatens the new life she has built with young son Pete (Rider Strong) and b.f. Dan (Christopher McDonald). It turns out that Sutherland is mainly concerned with maintaining the unity of his nuclear family. Early on, in narration that may reveal too much, he expresses his motto: “The strength of this nation lies in the strength of its families.” Before going to prison, Sutherland told his daughter, “Daddy won’t forget this,” and now it remains to be seen what exactly he meant.
Centering on the rural working class, “Benefit of the Doubt” cleverly deviates from the much exploited “yuppie-in-peril” urban thriller that has saturated American screens over the last couple of years. But Jeffrey Polman and Christopher Keyser’s B-movie plot devices constantly drag the material down to a perfunctory level.
The chief problem is that a half-hour into the movie, the pivotal dirty family secrets are disclosed and the story has nowhere to go. When the first murder makes its scheduled stop, one can sniff red herring a mile away. The audience is ahead of the story, nullifying genuine suspense.
There are also plausibility problems: A key bedroom scene in the middle of the film simply doesn’t ring true, and some intriguing details, including the possibility Irving’s testimony against her father was coached by the prosecutor (Theodore Bikel), are dropped in but never developed.
The movie aspires to the ambience and tonality of “The Stepfather,” with which it shares some common themes, but it lacks the nasty irony and frightening undertones of that film. One waits for the plot to become more clever, but instead it gets more pedestrian.
Novice director Jonathan Heape doesn’t possess the savvy techniqueor manipulative skills required for a taut thriller. The climax, involving a chase scene at gorgeous Lake Powell and its surrounding mountains, is ineptly staged and poorly photographed.
Cast against type, Amy Irving gives a startling performance, conveying the vulnerability of a single mother and suspicious daughter without begging for audience sympathy or indulging in undue hysterics. Looking sexy and down-to-earth, Irving holds interest even under improbable circumstances.
As her loving yet menacing father, however, the usually reliable Sutherland is surprisingly timid and inexpressive. Despite the fact that he has played ambiguous and creepy roles before, Sutherland’s portrayal here lacks nuance, a problem in the film overall.
McDonald as the fiance, Graham Greene as the benevolent sheriff, and Bikel as the prosecutor are all excellent actors wasted in roles that are basically plot functions.