Adam Scott, Ashley Judd, ...
Credit: High Crimes: Ron Phillips

There’s a case to be made that Robert McKee, the guru of contemporary screenwriting, has done as much to coarsen and degrade the art of Hollywood cinema over the last two decades as Jerry Bruckheimer and Joe Eszterhas combined. For 15 years, McKee entitled his famous and influential roving class ”Story Structure,” and you can feel its elusive imprint whenever you see a movie that is nothing but story structure—a thriller, say, that has all the bones and ligaments of drama but none of the supple human flesh. High Crimes starts out as the tale of a high-powered San Francisco attorney, Claire Kubik, played by that mistress of perky peril Ashley Judd. Claire thinks that she’s got it all, but in a matter of minutes she learns that her husband (Jim Caviezel) is not what he seems.

Abruptly, the film shifts into military-courtroom mode, where Claire, defending her beleaguered mate on a murder charge, teams up with an engagingly rumpled attorney (Morgan Freeman) who’s a recovering alcoholic and therefore an ideal candidate for Redemption. Every 20 minutes or so, the film morphs into a stranger-in-the-dark-house suspense thriller, and then, just because life wouldn’t be fulfilled otherwise, it takes a few fast detours into conspiracy-theory terrain, complete with a right-wing (natch) cover-up of U.S. activities in El Salvador in 1988.

About all that’s missing is a didactic satire of media overkill, or perhaps a panic room for Judd to lock herself into. But you do have to say this for ”High Crimes”: It’s got structure. All the dots — the story ”beats” — are in place. It’s what connects them that’s the problem.

Ashley Judd skips this rope of tangled pulp in what has become her trademark state of eager cosmetic resilience. In ”High Crimes,” she manages the dual feat of looking at once stylish and desexed: lips glossy, eyes beaming, cheeks perfectly pancaked, yet all of it set off by a squirrelly hairdo that suggests Audrey Hepburn in the land of the 70-hour workweek. Eternal self-possession is Judd’s appeal, but it’s become her limitation as well; even when she’s vulnerable, she’s working the room. High Crimes carries almost no organic intrigue as a government/Marine/legal mystery, and that’s because the movie serves up all of that stuff, nearly subliminally, as the old-hat province of male intrigue.

This is very much a ”woman’s picture,” driven by a twin rudder of anxiety and empowerment. It’s about what it feels like to learn that your husband may be a killer—and, what’s worse, that he’s the kind of guy who’s been trained to fool a polygraph. (If he’s that terrific a liar, who exactly is he? And how would you know for sure?) But the movie is also about being fearless and savvy and professional enough to become his great defender, albeit with a little help.

Judd might almost be playing a yuppie Erin Brockovich, a woman who takes on the monolithic military machine all because it threatens her home. Morgan Freeman, as the fallen great lawyer Charlie Grimes, who knows — sadly — that he’s smarter than everyone around him, has the Albert Finney role, and I was grateful, whenever he was on screen, for his fine-cured precision. Freeman’s voice is so gentle and melodious in its play that it’s always a spry surprise when he suddenly slices up what the last person just said.

High Crimes was directed by Carl Franklin, whose promise in the last decade, starting from when he made the volatile One False Move, seems to be leaking away. Then again, it’s not clear what anyone could have done with Yuri Zeltser and Cary Bickley’s hackneyed genre puzzle of a script (it was adapted from a novel by Joseph Finder). Today’s audiences know when they’re being served boilerplate. They can tick off the clichés, and often do, loudly; in a strange way, the film is counting on that cynical video-store knowledge.

When a character like the naïve young military attorney Lieutenant Embry (Adam Scott) is assigned to defend Claire’s husband, there’s nothing to react to but his spooky, slightly fey appearance — he looks like Liberace in a Marine buzz cut — and the issue of whether he’s in on the conspiracy; even after he becomes involved with Claire’s sister (Amanda Peet), he has no independent life as a character.

Jim Caviezel, as the pivotal man on trial, plays his scenes with the right sweaty ambiguity, but the question mark at the center of his performance verges on the abstract. The entire movie hinges on whether Claire’s husband did what he’s accused of, yet how can we feel anything but detached from the outcome when High Crimes is so busy treating it as one more story beat that it never quite lets us hear the melody? C

High Crimes
  • Movie
  • 115 minutes