Monday, November 2, 2009

A Daughter’s Conviction (Johnson/Lifetime, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was one I recorded yesterday from Lifetime: A Daughter’s Conviction, also known as The Perfect Suspect (the title under which listed it), a 2006 TV-movie made in British Columbia, Canada (and set in Seattle so British Columbia can conveniently stand in for it) and dealing with Jo Hansen (Brooke Nevin), who grew up there but left for New York to attend college. She’s about to graduate when she goes back home for spring break to reconnect with her mother, Maureen (Kate Jackson), only when she arrives she finds her stepfather, Jack McBride (Steve Francis), dead on their living-room floor and mom passed out by the side of the pool. The police at first assume Jo killed her stepfather, and when her alibi checks out — much to their disgust — they fasten on Maureen as “the perfect suspect” and promptly arrest her.

It turns out that the McBrides had such a relentlessly dysfunctional marriage George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? look like a model couple by comparison — like Albee’s characters they were fond of drinking way too much for their own good (especially since Maureen is bipolar and a lot of her medications are not supposed to be mixed with alcohol) and getting into really vicious arguments, sometimes alone and sometimes in the presence of others who could recall Maureen getting out a gun and waving it at her husband. (She insists that the gun was never actually loaded, but since it was the murder weapon somebody inserted real bullets.) The main part of the film depicts Jo’s attempt to investigate the murder herself, since she becomes convinced early on that the cops aren’t interested in considering anyone but her mom as a suspect, and the assistance of her girlhood friend Erin (Keegan Connor Tracy), who had previously worked for McBride as a research assistant and volunteers to help Jo with her investigation.

The moment Erin appeared on the scene, all unctuous charm and phony good nature, I had her fingered as the real murderess — and that’s what the writing committee (Marc and Becca Doten, Luanne Ensle and Mac Hampton) eventually gave us, though not before throwing such a dizzying array of plots, counterplots and potential other suspects at us that their film frequently threatened to sink under the weight of its own complexity. The gimmick is that McBride had been a columnist for a Seattle newspaper (back when Seattle had newspapers!) for 25 years and had written a memoir that was going to blow the lid on a lot of local scandals — indeed, he’d lined up a literary agent before the book was finished and had written the last words of it the night he was killed. Among the scandals McBride uncovered that Jo stumbles across in her research is one in which the former head of the vice unit of the Seattle Police Department was convicted of leading a rogue squad that killed people, and the brother of that cop, Detective Gibson (John Furey), is leading the investigation into McBride’s murder.

She also runs afoul of Haggerty (Andrew McIlroy), who runs an illegal gambling parlor in which McBride played a lot of poker (and to whom McBride owed $165,000 at the time of his murder) and his muscle thug, Ken Curry (John Tench), a 1960’s hippie type who looks like a cross between George Harrison and Charles Manson. With all McBride’s womanizing as well as his gambling — which threatens to run through the fortune Maureen inherited from Jo’s father (her second of four husbands) — he seems like a quite nasty piece of work, though once Maureen is finally cleared the finger of suspicion falls on Sam Lee (Sean Rogerson), Erin’s estranged husband and a former rock musician who attempted to make it big on the heels of Pearl Jam and Nirvana, failed dismally (he released three CD’s locally but never got a major-label deal) and now is described as “a roadie for a band that never tours.”

He’s also a wife-beater whom Erin is determined to keep from gaining custody of their daughter Marybeth (Erica Bernard), and given McBride’s reputation he was suspicious that Erin started an affair with McBride while they were working together and that McBride was Marybeth’s real father. Erin tells Jo that Sam was so paranoid about his daughter’s true parentage that he ordered a paternity test — only it turns out that Erin ordered it herself, not to find out who her daughter’s father was but who her own father was, since she had become convinced it was McBride (her mom was a nurse whom McBride interviewed for a story about medical fraud), and though Maureen insisted that McBride couldn’t have been anybody’s father since he couldn’t have children at all, Erin was so deluded that she ultimately killed him when he refused to recognize her as his daughter, then planted the gun in Maureen’s passed-out hand so when she came to it would look like she did it. (So I had Erin pegged as the murderer but I had her motive wrong; I had assumed she killed McBride because he wouldn’t stop hitting on her.)

As silly as the plot seems in summary, A Daughter’s Conviction is actually a pretty good thriller despite some bits of overdirection by David Winkler — notably all the sequences in which Jo fantasizes how her suspect de jour might have committed the crime — as well as the overly bouncy musical score by Hal Beckett and the regrettable but forgivable absence of any of the hot soft-core porn scenes for which Lifetime is famous. Winkler manages to keep the tension up despite the ridiculously obvious script, and the ending (Erin holds Jo and Maureen hostage in Maureen’s house and is about to shoot Jo when Gibson comes in and shoots the gun out of Erin’s hand) is legitimately gripping while avoiding the bloodbath that ends too many of Lifetime’s thrillers. I’ve seen better movies on Lifetime but this one is easily above average.