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‘Benefit of the Doubt’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 16, 1993


Jonathan Heap
Donald Sutherland;
Amy Irving;
Graham Greene;
Christopher McDonald
Under 17 restricted

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The idea of Amy Irving, of all people, playing a white-trash waitress in an Arizona topless bar is so tantalizingly wrongheaded that, for a perverse instant, "Benefit of the Doubt" almost sounds fun. And when we learn that Donald Sutherland is her father, and that he's just out of prison after 22 years for the murder of her mother and that the last thing he said to his little girl, whose testimony assured his conviction, was "Daddy won't forget this," the film's camp potential shoots through the roof.

But "Benefit of the Doubt" isn't even interestingly bad. Irving plays a cowboy boots-and- miniskirt sort of gal named Karen, and the first thing she does when she hears that Daddy is getting out on parole is freak out and make a mad dash for the local sheriff (Graham Greene), who says there's nothing he can do, adding, "I guess you should be hearing from him soon."

Sure enough, Daddy starts showing up at the house, bearing gifts for her young son, Pete (newcomer Rider Strong), and, in general, trying to worm his way back into the family. During his time in the Big House, Daddy -- whose name is Frank -- seems to have become something of a fanatic on the subject of hearth and home. But, as we soon discover, his definition of family values departs radically from the one we're used to.

The movie is set up as a revenge fantasy: Karen sent Daddy to jail, so Daddy wants payback. But first-time director Jonathan Heap (along with screenwriters Jeffrey Polman and Christopher Keyser) also wants to make a point about the fracturing of the American family. Instead, they've come up with a sort of cheesy stalker movie in which Daddy is the monster.

The question is just what kind of monster. With his hair gray and slicked back, Sutherland plays Frank as the epitome of soothing rationality. While Irving trembles with fear, he tells her that she was too young all those years ago to understand what happened the night her mother died. It was just an accident. He loved his wife, he says, and could never have hurt her or his daughter. Remember what I said that day in court, he asks? "I said, 'Daddy won't forget you,' and I haven't."

Daddy does such a good job of gaslighting his daughter that Karen begins to doubt her own memory and trust her father's. Soon he's back in the bosom of his beloved family, and all is right with the world.

That is, of course, until strange things start happening. Just as Karen's boyfriend, Dan (Christopher McDonald), is about to propose marriage, he's killed in a mysterious accident. But instead of becoming suspicious of her father, Karen praises her daddy for holding the family together. "I just don't know what we would have done without him," she tells a skeptical friend.

In fact, everyone is skeptical about Frank -- everyone, that is, except Karen. And while Frank plays house, the audience keeps waiting for the ax to fall.

While we wait, Sutherland turns in one of his subtler performances. (He's more fun now that he's back to playing character parts.) Sutherland knows how to play menace, but strangely enough, he generates more fear in his quieter moments than when he lashes out.

Sutherland's acting here is almost enough to keep us engaged, and if the script had given him more to work with, "Benefit of the Doubt" could have been a better-than-average thriller. Though Irving isn't actively bad in the role of Karen, she is wrong for it. This isn't a matter of an untalented actress making the wrong choices for her character; it's just that this woman isn't in her.

To the movie's credit, Frank's motives aren't as predictable as expected. But while this twist makes Frank more dimensional (and scarier), it diminishes the film, which, in the end, collapses under the weight of Freudian cliches. And that's giving it ... oh never mind.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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