A tawdry tale of small-town sex and violence with just enough twists to keep the predictable action compelling, “Silent Witness” presents an adequate defense for TNT’s “Mystery Movie Night” experiment. Based on the 1997 bestseller by Richard North Patterson, the largely courtroom-set thriller dips into themes of friendship, middle-aged anxiety, defense attorney ethics and the past’s inexorable grip on the present. The shallow but competent outcome should have ratings prospects in line with other movies in the four-week wheel.
Hotshot defense attorney Tony Lord (Dermot Mulroney) reluctantly returns to his hometown of Lake City, Ohio, when his childhood best friend Sam Robb (Michael Cudlitz) is accused of murdering a high school track star. Buddies and former all-star athletes, the bond between Tony and Sam has already survived one high-profile murder case: Back when they were teens, Tony was accused but acquitted of killing his girlfriend, and Sam never doubted his friend’s innocence. When the tables are turned, Tony isn’t sure he can say the same about Sam.
Not helping matters: Tony discovers 46-year-old assistant principal Sam wasn’t just coaching the 16-year-old victim to track-meet victories, he was sleeping with her, too.
But Sam insists he isn’t a killer and Tony takes the case, disregarding the advice of his mentor (Judd Hirsch) that, “In criminal defense, old friends are not the best clients.” After all, Sam’s wife Kate (Anne Heche) — who also went to high school with the guys — had just as much motive to off her husband’s young lover, and the victim had a questionable bond with another older man (Anthony Ruivivar).
The title provides perhaps too big a clue to the mystery’s resolution, but director Peter Markle (“Flight 93”) oversees the courtroom action and Tony and Sam’s fractured friendship with smooth efficiency, placing equal emphasis on plot twists and emotional beats.
His straightforward visual style keeps the story moving along without distraction, even in brief flashbacks to the characters’ ’80s glory days.
The capable cast dutifully goes through the motions. If this is an audition for Mulroney to headline his own TNT series, he’d do just fine. It’s more disappointing to see the kooky energy Heche brings to a ho-hum role get sidelined by the extensive legal battles.