The late William Friedkin's final film is a fitting full stop to a rich filmography.
It’s been two months since William Friedkin’s death and we’re already getting his last film, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which was in the can before the filmmaker died aged 87 in August.
Opening with the late filmmaker’s thoughts - “All of the films I have made, that I have chosen to make, are all about the thin line between good and evil” – (which elicited a round of applause from the audience at the Venice Film Festival, where the film premiered in Out of Competition), this taut courtroom drama is adapted from Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1951 novel and the 1954 two-act play he adapted from it.
Set almost exclusively in a US naval hearing room, we meet young Lieutenant Stephen Maryk (Jake Lacy), who has been accused of relieving veteran Lieutenant Commander Philip Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland) as Captain of the USS Caine during a terrible storm. The prosecution claims that the insubordination led to a mutiny by the crew, motivated not because Queeg had lost the plot but because of Maryk’s personal hatred of his superior officer. It’s up to Maryk’s lawyer, the reluctant Lieutenant Greenwald (Jason Clarke), to discover the truth behind this possibly treasonous behaviour, which could result in both discharge and a lengthy jail sentence.
You rarely definitively know whether a project will be the artist’s last, but when you do, there’s the temptation to give it a pass or to be more lenient, realizing that it’ll be the final hurrah from a unique voice. After all, the artist in question was one of the leading filmmakers of the ‘New Hollywood’, alongside the likes of Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Brian De Palma. He revolutionized the horror genre with The Exorcist, gave the action genre a pants down spanking with The French Connection, and unapologetically injected some audacious verve into the crime thriller genre with Cruising. His was a directorial style that strived for authenticity at every turn, and it would be a damn shame to end an impressive career on a bum note.
Thankfully, no risk of that happening, as The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial does not in any way tarnish his legacy. It’s a skilfully handled legal drama that announces from the bold font of the title card that you’re in for a confident, old-fashioned drama.
There’s no question that it is visually unremarkable, with a Michael Grady’s cinematography and Darrin Navarro’s editing never letting you forget that you’re essentially watching a filmed play.
However, the narrative and its naturalistic setting does not call for any visual flourishes; rather, the precise aesthetic and subtle shots complement the two perspectives and the shifting dynamics. This is, at its core, a clash between two conflicting testimonies that turns into a battle of the wills. And as the opening director’s statement informs us, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial seeks to explore the murky crawlspace between the warring facets of morality, specifically the “guilty / not guilty” binary at the heart of the justice system, and how the reality behind a simple duality is anything but.
It’s to the director and the cast’s credit that such a dialogue-heavy piece and its inert physical set-up ends up so captivating. Everyone gives it wellies here. Of particular note are the late Lance Reddick (who also died this year) as Judge Blakely, and Sutherland, who impresses in a crescendo performance that is perfectly handled and plays with audience sympathy, revealing layers to a character that seemed all too easy to judge.
However, it’s Jason Clarke who stands out the most in his second outing this year as an interrogator, following Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. His performance peaks with his escalatingly bitter monologue in the film’s final moments. It’s during this last scene that his character, having realized who was whose pawn in a game of inadvertent complicity, (spoiler) tosses a drink in another officer’s face.
In many ways, this swift gesture before an abrupt cut to black is the perfect farewell shot from the always outspoken Friedkin: Glad you came, take that in the face, and so long.
The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial may not reinvent the courtroom drama genre or stand with some of Friedkin’s greatest. Nor will it surprise those familiar with the source material, the Oscar-nominated 1954 film starring Humphrey Bogart, or the 1988 TV version directed by Robert Altman. But it is a deeply satisfying swansong that slaps the audience in the face with the call to always consider what may be uncomfortable behind what we consider to be true.
So long, William Friedkin. Glad for the slaps, and that you weren’t around for The Exorcist reboot, which will be reviewed next week.
**The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and is streaming from today (6 October) on Paramount+ with Showtime. **