2 Hrs., 5 Mins.
Music Box November 22, 2019
usic Box (1989) has a horrifying dilemma driving it. In the movie, which is based on not one but two true stories, a lawyer — the brilliant and often ruthless Ann Talbot (Jessica Lange) — defends her father, Mike Laszlo (Armin Mueller-Stahl), in court after he’s accused of being a war criminal. When the allegations first come to light, Mike claims that this is a case of mistaken identity. Ann,
who believes her dad is decent and harmless, naturally sides with him, and takes on the case. But as Music Box progresses, two things become increasingly clear. Ann doesn’t know her father as well as she thought. And it seems progressively likely that Mike is indeed responsible for the heinous crimes he is accused of committing, and that his claims of innocence might just be further evidence of his purported evil.
Music Box, which has been tightly directed by Costa-Gavras and claustrophobically written by Joe Eszterhas, eerily captures Ann’s predicament. We can tell, watching the movie, that it’s been constructed by at least one person who knows a thing or two about what it might be like to be in its heroine’s shoes. The person, it turns out, is Eszterhas. When the Hungarian-American screenwriter was well into his 40s, he found out that, in his youth, his father was involved with the Arrow Cross Party, a fascistic Hungarian group that, with machine-like efficiency, pumped out vicious anti-Semitic propaganda during World War II. After the discovery, Eszterhas excised his father from his life.
For Music Box, Eszterhas has conjoined his own experiences with an explosive real-life case involving John Demjanjuk, a Ukranian-American autoworker who, in the 1980s, was accused of being “Ivan the Terrible,” a guard at the Treblinka concentration camp whose inflictions of violence were said to be doubly extreme in comparison to his colleagues. (He was sentenced to death in 1988 — a conviction later overturned due to a lack of evidence.) In the film, Mike is essentially Demjanjuk: Mike fervently says too that he isn’t responsible for perpetrating the acts he’s said to be responsible for perpetrating, even after evidence against him piles. Ann is a reimagining of Eszterhas.
This is a smart and cautious movie that in less capable hands might have sloped toward flagrant melodrama, losing the urgency of the earth-shaking quandary at its core and minimizing the victims in favor of big emotional leaps. That isn't to say that the film isn’t impervious to trying out at least the first wrongdoing: Its third act, which involves a very-actorly breakdown by Lange in front of Mueller-Stahl, is ardent in a way only a soap opera could be. It’s out of place. But otherwise, Music Box painstakingly shows the steadied (and therefore torturous) process of Ann’s coming to terms with the truth.
Lange vividly expresses her character’s escalating doubts. Eszterhas’ script effectively conveys how, after a while, the wall around Ann is turning to dust just through how she speaks and presents herself. Lange builds on this. She starts the film persuading us that she’s a merciless-by-design lawyer who knows exactly how to talk down to people to get them to admit things about themselves they with a different stranger would not. Her confidence emits from her lawyerly eloquence, which comes with a hint of slimy braggadocio. In the early courtroom scenes, Lange's Ann is like a theater actor at the top of her game — killing it, and she knows as much. But gradually we can see how the once-dependable verbal strategies sour in her mouth until her guard is broken down. With this paternal betrayal comes a reevaluation of the self — Ann might soon have to go back to square one.
The first-hand knowledge informing the script, supplemented by Lange’s attention toward minute character beats, provides the film with an unusual sort of empathy. Felt here is a sense of understanding that doesn’t so regularly instill itself in us for courtroom dramas, which tend to prefer uncovered juiciness to real-feeling behind-the-scenes breakdowns. It's most moving when it's quietly so. There’s an especially memorable moment in the film where Ann breaks down in tears in her car after visiting the relative of someone ruined by her allegedly criminal father — and here Lange gets us to feel as Ann might: like she’s being buried alive, almost, the car a coffin and the world, going about their business, the unreality dirt. She can deny reality until she can’t anymore. Music Box makes real its crushing weight.
Gavras directs Music Box with the creeping patience we more often see in thrillers — something the film technically isn’t but feels like anyway. An obvious choice here would be to implement flashback scenes to accompany Ann’s discoveries. Opting out of the structural decision by Eszterhas and Gavras accentuates the suspense. By having the past visually obscured and instead spoken into existence by the myriad people who testify against Mike, it's easier to comprehend Ann’s denial, then make uglier her epiphany.
The movie's finale, though, is unbecoming and unnecessarily expositional, and should have, I think, been replaced by the aforementioned car scene, which is powerful enough to suggest what is explicitly laid out in the next few scenes. (Ann’s decision to cut her dad out of her life, her trying to make amends for her very-wrong courtroom victory, her having to rebuild how she considers herself and her heritage.) But the misplaced bigness of the final stretch of Music Box fortunately isn't movie-ruining: it’s just less convincing than what came before it. Otherwise, the movie is an uncommonly sentient and personal courtroom movie. It has the chutzpah indicative of the genre but manages to also contain the intimacy that is often left undervalued by it. B+