High Crimes (2002)


High Crimes is a movie we’ve seen before — almost a movie we’ve heard of before. It’s got one of those generic crime-thriller titles that sounds familiar the first time you hear it (True Crime, Crimes of War, A Perfect Crime, Scene of the Crime, etc.).

2002, 20th Century Fox. Directed by Carl Franklin. Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, James Caviezel, Adam Scott, Amanda Peet, Bruce Davison.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value


Age Appropriateness


MPAA Rating


Caveat Spectator

Flashback scenes of a military massacre; recurring violence and menace to women; marital and non-marital sexuality with fleeting partial nudity; crude language.

We’ve seen Morgan Freeman before as this kind of broken-down but savvy professional, and Ashley Judd as this kind of threatened woman who finds empowerment by daring to take on seemingly unstoppable oppressors.

Only Jim Caviezel (The Count of Monte Cristo; Frequency) brings anything new to the table, displaying even more range and subtlety than in his recent starring turn in The Count of Monte Cristo. Other than his performance, High Crimes holds few surprises.

Granted, it’s competent enough to hold your attention. The picture begins by establishing Tom and Claire Kubik (Caviezel and Judd) as a likable, attractive couple with an almost idyllic marriage: loving, trusting, open to life. (When Claire determines that she’s ovulating, she runs out to her husband’s workshop for a quickie on the couch. Then she wants him to be on top, ostensibly to maximize their odds of conceiving, but also to show us her trust and vulnerability.)

Later, when government forces suddenly swoop down on the happy couple and whisk Tom off to military prison, it’s like the sanctity of the family itself is under attack. When the government tells Claire that she doesn’t really know who her husband is at all — not even his real name, let alone the crimes he’s supposed to have committed — we want to see her prove them wrong about the man, even if they may be right on some of the details. The courtroom scenes come with some zingers, and director Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress) maintains a level of suspense through most of the proceedings.

Freeman, with his rumpled suits and rumpled dignity, is clearly having fun in a role that calls for less poignancy than usual, and allows him to say things like "I love being the wild card." Judd has top billing, though, and the strength and sensitivity of her performance goes a long way toward holding the picture together.

Once you begin thinking about it, though, the whole thing starts to break down.

A mysterious witness goes out of his way to hold a discussion in an ominously remote locale, then gets chased off by security guards before revealing the one most relevant piece of information. (Since he picked the spot, why not go somewhere he knows he can talk?) An audiotaped confession of conspiracy and false testimony is mooted by judicial fiat, but a seemingly less-damning classified medical record has devastating consequences. In a critical scene, one character calls another requesting specific information about personal comings and goings on specific dates during a ten-year period, simply assuming that the other party actually keeps such records — and the records are right there.

The plot recycles standard thriller devices — a military cover-up, an all-encompassing conspiracy, a frame job, woman-in-peril menace, a False Traitor (followed of course by the Real Traitor) — without much coherence or subtlety. The motives for the conspirators’ actions become murkier, not clearer, as the story progresses. A character is beaten, presumably as a warning that he was getting too close to something; but then it turns out that he was pursuing a false lead, so what was the beating about? Again, if military personnel really wanted to assassinate an American civilian (!), wouldn’t they have more reliably lethal, less conspicuous, less indiscriminate means of doing so than gushing oil all over the road in front of the person’s car and shooting gunk all over the windshield, so that the car skids off the road and into a river (followed by how many other cars)? And if they didn’t want the person dead but only wanted to deliver a warning, then wouldn’t they have less potentially lethal, less conspicuous, less indiscriminate means of doing that?

The answer to all these questions, of course, is that the enemy’s actions weren’t dictated by their own motives at all, but by the screenwriters’ needs.

Yet more troubling than the creaky plot mechanics is where the films ultimately goes with them. Claire’s life and marriage are under attack, not only from outside, but from within: Whether or not her husband really committed the crimes he’s accused of, he’s obviously kept enormous secrets from her. The movie plays on anxieties about intimacy, commitment, and trust: How do you know, it asks, whether you can really trust anyone at all, even your best beloved?

This theme is heightened as Claire’s slacker sister Jackie (Amanda Peet) has a fling with a baby-faced lieutenant lawyer (Adam Scott) assigned to defend Tom (or Ron, as it turns out). Jackie’s dalliance has the air of a madcap but essentially harmless lark, whereas Claire, the respectably and faithfully married woman, is the one who’s really in an untenable situation. The glaring contrast between the false security of Claire’s marriage and the free-spirited fun of her sister’s affair doesn’t exactly reflect a healthy view of the sacrament of matrimony. (Jackie’s promiscuity and penchant for strutting around in her skivvies adds an element of trashiness to the film, reinforced by a gratuitous strip-joint scene.)

Marriage isn’t the only institution that takes it on the chin in High Crimes. The military — in this case the Marine Corps — comes off as a corrupt world in which everyone is protecting a secret and doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process. In the entire film, the only military man who isn’t guilty is a dupe. As with John Q and other pre-9/11 projects released in a post-9/11 world, this cynical view of men in uniform falls even flatter today than it otherwise might have.

The climax, I’m afraid, serves only to aggravate all of these problems (yes, all of them). Piling implausibility upon implausibility, adding insult to injury toward wedding vows and Semper Fi, High Crimes descends into unnecessary roughness. In the end the guilty are punished, but the viewer takes no satisfaction in it.

As if sensing this, the filmmakers try to create the impression of a happy ending with a tacked-on denouement. The determinedly perky sitcom-banter of these final moments serves only to ensure that High Crimes goes out on a note as bland as its title.

Crime, Drama, Thriller