“We may be trying to let a guilty man go free, I don’t know. Nobody really can. But we have a reasonable doubt, and that’s something that’s very valuable in our system. No jury can declare a man guilty unless it’s sure.”
I’ve always really liked psychological films with just one setting. They use this a lot in horror movies like Saw or Nine Dead, but there’s a theatricality with this sort of style that lends itself to all types of movies really. They’re typically shorter and rely on really good writing as opposed to visuals, which means they can often fall flat due to a poor script, but they will occasionally emerge as astounding works. This is where we see 12 Angry Men, a notable piece of American cinema that has had immense influence in the film world since its release. It’s a thrilling movie that never lets up, and I would consider it a personal favorite of mine.
The story is simple. It’s twelve jurors who must decide whether or not to convict a young man for murder, who will surely get the death penalty if found guilty. The film is a fascinating, intrusive look at the judicial process as we see twelve different personalities come into conflict over the question of a man’s life. While the overwhelming consensus seems to be pointed towards the man’s guilt, the tides begin to shift as conflict escalates in the hot deliberation room. It’s a story about justice, breaking down preconceived notions, and breaking down group consensus to do the right thing.
I find the most fascinating thing about 12 Angry Men to be its exploration of the group dynamic. I love how the vote in the beginning of the deliberation has several men raise their hands after it looks like the majority is already voting guilty, immediately suggesting a sort of hive mind in which jury members try not to rock the boat. While the movie ultimately ends on a positive note and what looks like a victory for the judicial system, it still makes a troubling commentary and suggests that so many cases probably don’t go this way. The film also delivers strong commentary on the power of the individual to stand up to this group mindset and make significant change. There are some really touching moments in 12 Angry Men, and the script holds up beautifully. There really haven’t been any movies since that touch on this subject matter in such a powerful way.
The acting in the film is terrific all around. Henry Fonda brings a strong performance as Juror #8, the outcast from the start who attempts to sway his peers and acts as a moral basis for the film. All the other actors bring out great work, and every character seems like a real person you could meet in real life. It really feels like a collection of men with their own ideas and agendas coming together to make a crucial decision. The theatricality of the characters or the story is never played up too much, but there is still some really strong stuff sprinkled throughout. The transition some of the characters make from start to finish is really inspiring, and no actor ever feels like they’re giving a fake performance. It’s all grounded and honest work.
I think the movie really gets its thrills from the development of the plot as a sort of mystery. There’s the actual mystery of how the murder in question took place and whether or not there is reasonable doubt to the man’s guilt, but there’s also the unraveling of these characters. Which men have preconceived biases about the case? Which men simply don’t want to rock the boat? Which men refuse to compromise because it’s in their nature? You see these strangers reveal themselves to each other, and it’s always exciting. Every line of dialogue gives us a bit more of a glimpse into these characters’ lives, which we are left in the dark about for the most part. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, and every second of the film seems so valuable because you’re given so little knowledge going in. It dives right into the action and keeps at it until the end, a mark of great screenwriting.
This movie will remain with me as one of my favorites because there really isn’t anything like it. The script is so tight and honest with strong characters that feel like real people. It’s a movie that feels like a play that feels like real life. It’s an inspiring look not only at the criminal justice system, but at humanity itself in many ways, and it has stood the test of time as a milestone of American film.
Films Left to Watch: 954