A serious flaw in Belgium’s justice system is illustrated in “The Verdict,” an accomplished drama from veteran local multihyphenate Jan Verheyen. This tale of a man’s horrific loss of family, the legal glitch that lets the killer go scot-free, and a subsequent revenge-murder trial turns into a talky courtroom affair fairly early on, but it’s still a compelling one. While some theatrical sales around Europe are likely, farther afield the pic could be more widely seen in remake form. It opens on home turf Oct. 9.

Luc Segers (Koen De Bouw, also headlining at Montreal in comedy “Brasserie Romantique”) is a success by any standard; he’s being groomed as successor to the CEO of the company he’s worked for since college, and he has a nice home, a nicer wife, Ella (Joke Devynck), and a happy young daughter (Nell Cattrysse). But all this is shattered when the trio stop for gas after a company party. Ella hustles across the street to get a loaf of bread from an unstaffed, automated vending business. Inside, she’s assaulted by a leather-jacketed hoodlum who, after grabbing her purse, needlessly beats her to death. Curious why it’s taking so long, Luc discovers the bloody scene and tries to stop the perp, in the process getting himself beaten unconscious. Worse still, the panicked daughter runs across the street toward her parents, straight into the path of an oncoming vehicle.

Upon waking from a coma three weeks later, Luc learns he’s already missed both his loved ones’ funerals. Though without other witnesses the police have little to go on, he’s able to identify one Kenny De Groot (Hendrik Aerts) as the murderer from a book of serial-offender mugshots. Then the unthinkable occurs: Due to a “procedural error” (an administrator simply forgot to sign one required document), De Groot’s lawyer, Teugels (Veerle Baetens), is able to get the entire case dismissed and have her undeniably guilty client set free. There’s much public outrage, though none so potent as the fury that turns Luc into a zombie at work and obsessed stalker of his prey after hours. Finally he kills the unrepentant murderer, willingly giving himself up to police, admitting all responsibility, and refusing to be tried on a lesser charge of manslaughter — he wants his case to put on trial the justice system that failed him so grievously.

As Luc is not allowed to speak in court (until one last pre-jury verdict statement), after the preliminaries the the focus shifts to the witness, lawyers and judges concerned. The latter are painted as rather bluntly stacked against him, possibly in cahoots with De Groot’s supercilious-looking lawyer (now returned as prosecuting attorney). It’s the justice ministry’s stance that no matter how wronged Segers has been (or how strongly popular opinion favors his acquittal), he committed premeditated murder, and the rule of law must be followed lest the entire constitutional democracy dissolve into chaos.

In the way of all courtroom dramas, this becomes a bit dry and claustrophobic, despite Verheyen’s brisk staging. Muzzled Luc grows a bit cipherous, while the late killer never transcends his rote scumbag sketching (though the prosecutor does briefly recount his abused childhood). Still, helmer’s screenplay remains involving, culminating in long, impassioned speeches by both the supercilious Teugels and protag’s more sympathetic own counsel (Johan Leysen).

Perfs are solid, technical contributions sharp, with Frank Van den Eeden’s precise widescreen photography sticking to a somber blue-gray-black palette. Closing text notes that such “procedural errors” allow dozens of accused criminals to go free every year, and that Belgium’s Parliament has debated closing the loopholes for more than a decade, to no avail.

Montreal Film Review: ‘The Verdict’

Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (competing), Aug. 24, 2013. Running time: 102 MIN. Original title: "Het vonnis"

  • Production: (Belgium) An Eyeworks Film & TV Drama production. Produced by Jan Verheyen.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Jan Verheyen. Camera (color, HD), Frank Van den Eeden; editor, Philippe Ravoet; music, Steve Willaert; production designer, Johan Van Essche; art director, Martin Van Essche; costume designer, Tine Verbeurgt; sound, Benoit Biral; assistant director, Marcus Himbert; casting, Gunter Schmid.
  • With: Koen De Bouw, Johan Leysen, Jappe Claes, Veerle Baetens, Jo De Meyere, Chris Lomme, Hendrik Aerts, Viviane De Muynck, Wouter Hendrickx, Dirk Tuypens, Nell Cattrysse, Joke Devynck, Sven De Ridder, Robby Cleiren, Karel Deruwe, Camilla Blereau, Wietse Tanghe. (Dutch dialogue)