CIFF 2013: The Verdict (Het Vonnis, 2013)

Director/Screenwriter: Jan Verheyen

The Verdict 8

By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the things I love about the Chicago International Film Festival is having a chance to see what issues are on the minds of filmmakers in different countries. No matter how small the world may seem to be in these days of the worldwide web, we most definitely do not live and see things the same way. The Verdict is a film that shows the yawning cultural chasm between life in the United States and, in this case, that in Belgium. It also provides me with a chance to sound a note of caution about the unintended consequences that may befall the country’s system of jurisprudence if the filmmakers get their way.

The Verdict 1

The Verdict opens with a man crouched in a doorway. His face is drawn, and his hands are shaking. The scene ends with a B-roll to a static frame of the man, a technique director Verheyen uses throughout the film to create a patchwork of impressions and amp the intensity of each scene. The next scene shows the man in a very different, very happy frame of mind. He is Luc Segers (Koen De Bouw), an executive who is enjoying a company party with his wife Ella (Joke Devynck) and daughter (Nell Cattrysse). Luc expects to be named CEO to succeed his mentor, and the two men are set to meet about it the next day.

The Verdict 11

On the way home from the party, Luc stops to refuel his car. His wife goes to an automat across the street to get something to eat. She encounters a man who is burglarizing the machines. She resists him when he tries to grab her purse, and he beats her to death with his bare fist. Luc, wondering what is taking Ella so long, goes across the street and runs into the assailant, who kicks him into unconsciousness. Luc’s daughter runs to help her father and is struck and killed by a passing car. When Luc awakens from a three-week coma, he learns that he has lost everything—his wife, his daughter, and the promotion.

The Verdict 7

With Luc as an eyewitness, the assailant, Kenny De Groot (Hendrik Aerts), is apprehended quickly at the auto repair shop where he works. Unfortunately, the case is thrown out because a magistrate failed to sign a necessary document. De Groot is out free and clear. Furious that the system failed to secure justice for him and his family, Luc stalks and kills De Groot and gives himself up to the police without a fight. Rather than plea bargain his way to a short sentence, Luc seeks to put the system on trial by going for an acquittal with a defense that his was a crime of passion despite the premeditated nature of his actions.

The Verdict 5

I love looking at the workings of jurisprudence in other countries because they all have their unique qualities. In Belgium, though I could be wrong, it appeared that Luc would have to pay something toward the prosecution of De Groot, perhaps even to help pay the publicity-seeking, private defense attorney (Veerle Baetens) who will bill the state for her services. When Luc himself is standing trial, De Groot’s defense attorney stands by as a kind of prosecutor who seems involved primarily to see that the victim, Kenny De Groot, is not put on trial for Luc’s crime. Her summation, detailing De Groot’s difficult childhood as an explanation for his life of violent crime, is right out of the root-causes playbook.

The Verdict 3

The trial is extremely compelling, as the testimony is intercut with scenes of the days leading up to the murder and culminating in the murder itself, thus slowly revealing the action we thought we might be denied. The scene of Ella on the floor of the automat looking as though she is preparing to die is doubled with a similar shot of De Groot; however, the brutality of the first murder by a habitually violent man is contrasted with the shaky hand and wild shooting of a man who has never killed anything in his life. Nonetheless, he manages to pump four bullets into De Groot and stands over him as the life bleeds out of him, showing that violent anger is available to us all if given the right set of circumstances.

The Verdict 12

American audiences are very used to films and television programs of vigilante justice and revenge, so we expect Luc to act as he did. The film, however, doesn’t make this crime seem like an inevitability. Koen De Bouw’s performance is a tour de force that keeps our expectations slightly off balance because he’s a real person, not a stock character, whose emotions are volatile and realistic. Indeed, the entire cast take overly familiar characters—the lady judge, the barracuda defense attorney, the pragmatic chief prosecutor (Jappe Claes), Luc’s understanding family lawyer (Johan Leysen)—and manage to individualize them to a considerable degree. The closing argument Leysen gives is spellbinding, and almost completely won me over from the equally compelling arguments made by the two prosecutors of the case. The writing and fervency of the actors couldn’t have been better. The tight construction of the film turns a routine procedural into an edge-of-seat experience.

The Verdict 10

Nonetheless, the closing title cards that warn of the problem the Belgian criminal justice system faces from procedural errors left me feeling queasy. Equal justice under the law underpinned the prosecution’s case, and Luc’s trial represents a slippery slope away from it. As an American who has just seen the U.S. Supreme Court deal a severe blow to the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and the Miranda warning requirement, learned that 55 people have been in custody in my state for more than five years awaiting trial, and despairs that the prison population nationwide has quadrupled since 1980 to a total of 2.4 million, I shudder to think what Belgium is toying with. Hopefully, this activist film will see people who commit procedural errors dealt with through education and disciplinary action and not an erosion of the rights Americans once had but lost.

The Verdict shows Wednesday October 16, 8:30 p.m., Thursday, October 17, 8:15 p.m., and Tuesday, October 22, 3:00 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. Actor Jappe Claes is scheduled to attend the Wednesday and Thursday screenings.www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Previous coverage

A Thousand Times Good Night: This film explores the choice a war photographer is forced to make when her sexist husband threatens to leave her and take their two children with him if she doesn’t stop putting herself in harm’s way. (Norway)

Wałęsa: Man of Hope: Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda offers an informative and exhilarating look at the life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. (Poland)

The Invisible Collection: A young man who has lost his friends in a car accident comes to terms with his grief through an encounter with a blind collector of rare prints. (Brazil)

Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)

  • Christopher Potter spoke:
    3rd/10/2013 to 4:51 pm

    To Marilyn:

    I get more envious every day. I hope they go on a Best-of-the-Festival tour — including an Ann Arbor stop.

    Chris Potter

  • zigot spoke:
    16th/10/2013 to 11:19 pm

    just seen this screening… based on what I’ve seen I have to say that I think the movie in general is a little bit banalized… it left me wondering what would of happened if there was added complexity of the retributor NOT being such a perfect/idolized citizen… would he be given the same level of justice

    having said this, I haven’t seen better monologues (particularly by the defense attorney and the chief prosecutor) in a while… which rates this movie as a more than excellent courtroom drama… the opportunistic justice minister’s role was also brilliantly displayed

  • Marilyn spoke:
    17th/10/2013 to 9:48 am

    I agree, zigot, that the script is first rate and the performers excellent. You do bring up a good point about the perfect citizen, which makes the sympathies of the audience push into his corner without really examining what’s going on here.

  • tom hyland spoke:
    21st/10/2013 to 9:01 pm

    Marilyn: Excellent review. I’m also on the media list for the CIFF and recently saw the film and am as praiseworthy of the film as are you. This is an excellent film and the performance by Leysen is brilliant, while his closing argument is one of the finest I’ve ever heard in a film.

    I will disagree with you though on your final thoughts. I understand your point and this is a tricky subject – or slippery slope, as you put it. But this film wisely talks about both sides in the argument. This is not a simple minded film in which we root for revenge. I for one am glad to finally see a film that takes the position of the victim – and does so with great balance. (See my review at: http://cinemadirectives.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-verdict-and-i-will-be-murdered.html

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/10/2013 to 9:18 pm

    Hi, Tom, and thanks for stopping by. I would have agreed with you if we didn’t get the title cards at the end that seem to be calling for a change in the situation. Given the drama we have just seen, it would appear that the solution is to abridge due process. Making the killer a scumbag and the husband all that is good really stacks the deck. This is advocacy filmmaking, no matter who good it is – and it is very, very good.

  • tom hyland spoke:
    22nd/10/2013 to 1:08 pm

    Marilyn: I agree with you to some degree, but whether the killer was a scumbag or not, I don’t think matters. It’s about what the husband does. It’s not a crowd-pleasing revenge story, but one that asks difficult questions not only about this character, but about the laws as well. There is some advocacy, but to me it was subdued. No one comes out smelling like a rose when all is said and done.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/10/2013 to 1:31 pm

    Of course, in law, the victim and perpetrator don’t matter. They are both equal human beings under the law. One, the scumbag, went free because of a technicality, though he might have been convicted or set free, who knows. The other went free because he deserved to as far as the jurors and audience members were concerned. In a sense, he got off on a technicality, too, through the interpretation of crime of passion as applying to a planned crime motivated by passionate hatred. Luc has lost all he holds dear, except his life and freedom, so that’s punishment enough for him in the eyes of the audience. This was manipulative to be sure, but I can forgive the film a lot because of how well written and performed it was.

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