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Today’s movie ”12 Angry Men” is the complete opposite of my previous entry ”The Ten Commandments”. From lavish sets we are down to a single room and the adjoining bathroom, from vibrant color to old fashioned black and white and from primitive direction of actors to the most delicious and refined acting I can remember. “The Ten Commandments” was epic of scale, “12 Angry men is super condensed and absolutely impossible to let go of. You could not get two more different movies.
I know which one I prefer.
“12 Angry Men” is a Dogme movie four decades before that sort of this became really hip. It takes a single idea and treat it with care and respect and use actors for the single thing they are really good at, which is of course acting, and the result is one of the most pleasant surprises so far in 2016. I just swallowed this movie and I am still trying to digest it. It has a simple premise, but so many neat details that it is impossible to keep a summary brief.
Anyway, here is the score: An 18 year old boy is charged with killing his father. A jury of twelve men adjourns to a meeting room to decide whether or not the boy is guilty. On the face of it the case is clear, all arrows point towards the boy. In the initial vote eleven of the twelve jurors declare the boy guilty without blinking and only Juror, number 8 (Henry Fonda), disagrees. Not that he is convinced he is not guilty, he is just not sure the boy is guilty and you cannot condemn someone to the chair if you are not certain of his guilt.
This starts a discussion about the case. One after another the details of the case are submitted to their scrutiny and the hard evidence starts to crumble. This causes a shift in the jury and the “Not Guilty” fraction grows, one member at a time.
The subject matter is interesting all on its own, how each piece of evidence is torn apart and I am actually not a fan of courtroom dramas. It is contribution of each of the characters that makes it work. None of them are given names, just a number, but they are very well defined characters and it is by their traits we know them. The raging garage owner who want to kick some ass, the timid bank clerk, the structured and well-mannered clock maker, the flippant advertiser, the uncaring sports fan who is in the jury for the money, the cool stock broker and so on. Each of the twelve men has an angle, each one approaches the case in their own personal way, through rage, logic, conviction, prejudice or whatever their character represents.
One could argue that the characters are drawn too hard, becoming stylized, but to me they feel quite real. It is the setting that makes them stand sharp. Without names we only recognize them by their traits. The small room, the oppressing heat, the life or death decision makes the characters stand sharp. And that is so very brilliantly done. Yes, Henry Fonda’s juror number 8 is the catalyst, but it is an ensemble effort and it is because of the resistance to the arguments we learn as much as we do about each of them. Incidentally, the smarter and sensible they are the sooner they are swayed, but in each case it takes a special argument.
This is a timeless movie. It is not burdened by outdated technical qualities or old fashioned sensibilities. If you add color this could be an excellent movie from last week. It holds up that well and that is because this is all about human traits. We have not changed significantly since 57 when you take away the surface.
I wish there were a lot more like this movie. Dialogue and character driven movies with a clever focus. I loved every minute of it.