Reasonable Doubt plays out in the toe-freezing dead of winter, in depopulated industrial areas and on empty streets of plow-flattened snow. Set in Chicago, but shot mostly in Winnipeg, the movie uses the white emptiness of the Midwestern-Canadian winter as both a visual motif and a plot point; its twists are predicated on a lack of witnesses and bystanders, and miserable weather provides a convenient excuse. Barrenness and brevity are the movie’s major virtues; it wastes no time in setting up its premise, doesn’t dawdle when it comes to plotting, and cuts to the credits before the 80-minute mark. This sense of old-school economy helps make Reasonable Doubt palatable, but it isn’t enough to sustain the movie, a courtroom thriller that becomes sillier and more generic as it zips along. It moves fast (a rare quality for a contemporary thriller), but doesn’t end up going anywhere interesting.
The protagonist, prosecutor Mitch Brockden (Dominic Cooper), is introduced mid-speech, cinching a home invasion case for the State Attorney’s office. Driving home after celebrating at a South Loop bar, Brockden hits a pedestrian. Fearing what a DUI charge might do his career, he dials 911 from what appears to be the world’s last working big-city payphone and flees the scene. The next morning, he learns that a car mechanic named Clinton Davis (a subdued Samuel L. Jackson) has been charged with the pedestrian’s death. Brockden talks his way into prosecuting Davis and sabotages his own case, but then discovers evidence that suggests that Davis could actually be guilty and that he might also be responsible for several unsolved homicides.
The trade-off of the movie’s speed and straightforwardness is a crippling lack of ambiguity. The script tweaks a common premise—a man trying to prove another’s innocence while hiding his own guilt—by adding a second layer of suspicion, but that suspicion resolves into guilt within the space of two scenes, rendering itself useless as a tension-building device. Hunches are introduced and become facts within a few minutes’ time; the movie obliterates doubt, and therefore has trouble creating a sense of suspense. Without that emotional pull, the only thing viewers can latch on to is the brisk plotting, the satisfaction of knowing what follows what and why. Here, they’re likely to be disappointed, as the movie’s noir-ish setup recedes and a sub- Dexter cat-and-mouse thriller comes into the foreground. By the end, it’s difficult to care about what happens to Brockden or Davis; fortunately, the audience doesn’t have to sit with that boredom for very long.