An intense Jake Gyllenhaal leads the relentless and riveting Presumed Innocent

Withstanding the test of fiction and time, the court room drama, when done well, makes for riveting story telling and showcases some of film and televisions most intense performances, creating truly iconic moments on the screen.

Serving as the second screen adaptation of Scott Turow’s novel (following the Harrison Ford led 1990 film), Presumed Innocent is an 8-episode miniseries on Apple TV+ with Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role and created by former law firm worker and acclaimed television writer, David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies).

Chicago prosecutor, Rusty Sabich (Gyllenhaal) is one of the best to ever do it. With an incredibly high conviction rate and soul-piercing charm, Rusty has developed a reputation that fuels his confidence and tenacity, occasionally to the annoyance of some of his counterparts, especially the recently elected new District Attorney Nico Della Guardia (O-T Fagbenle) and fellow prosecutor Tommy Molto (Peter Sarsgaard).

Outside of the court room, Rusty seemingly has the ideal life. A nice house, loving wife, and beautiful children. But when his colleague, Carolyn Polhemus (Renate Reinsve), is brutally murdered, Rusty’s idyllic lifestyle is uprooted when revealing secrets point towards Rusty as the prime suspect in Carolyn’s killing.

If there is one prevalent theme that Presumed Innocent truly wears on its sleeves, it’s desperation. Every single character within this story is driven by innate and passionate desperation. Rusty is desperate to prove his innocence. He is also desperate to keep his family together in spite of the shocking revelations about his affair with Carolyn. Rusty’s wife, Barbara (Ruth Negga) is desperate to take control back of her life and feelings towards her emotionally elusive husband. Della Guardia is desperate to further progress his politically inspired career in any way necessary. Carolyn’s son is desperate to have Rusty convicted as vengeance for his mother’s absence in his life. And Molto is desperate to destroy the pedestal that Rusty is standing on, whether or not the evidence points towards guilty, or not.

The sheer intensity of every character’s unique desperation is the main source of the series tension, and the tension is relentless. The episodic format for this story allows for enough development of the narrative and characters that everything feels fully realised and has substance. But it also means that no character caught up in this brutal case has a moment of reprieve as the webs of lies and deceit become larger with each revelation. If the characters don’t get reprieve, neither do the audience.

It’s emotionally taxing, but it is incredibly well structured to be a punchy-paced, riveting, relentless murder mystery that balances the relationships between family, colleagues, and foes. Each episode flies by without skipping over any detail or drama to leave gaps within the plot. And even though each episode ends with often out-of-the-blue (and occasionally, a little too heightened) twists or reveals, the way a new plot thread connects to the beginning of the next episode often makes Presumed Innocent feel like a 7-hour movie instead of a television series.

Matching the intensity of the narrative and pacing is Jake Gyllenhaal, who is one vein pop away from exploding in some of the show’s more emotionally brutal moments. Gyllenhaal has a trademarked intensity as an actor (see Nightcrawler or Prisoners), and that is once again on full display with a physically and loud performance, that only then highlights the quieter moments even more.

Rusty is a tough protagonist to side with, as he often digs his grave deeper and deeper with each revelation about his character, specifically his affair with and affection for Carolyn while having such a loving, loyal wife in Barbara right by his side. The series however does a brilliant job of leading the audience down many rabbit holes as to who is guilty of the murder, often resulting in a back-and-forth morality dilemma as to whether Rusty deserves the compassion and empathy from the audience.

The supporting cast is also just as brilliant. Ruth Negga is the one character of the show who demands and deserves complete empathy from the audience, and her often silent struggle in how to deal with this situation is heartbreaking, but as she fights back for her control, Negga’s sternness makes for immersive viewing.

Bill Camp plays Rusty’s longtime friend and defence lawyer, Raymond Horgan, and he is captivating with every moment he is on screen as a “take no shit” lawyer who is also dealing with the haunting morality of whether his friend is a murderer. Peter Saarsgard often encroaches under the audience’s skin as a lawyer, like many, who values pride and stature over honesty and justice, and as more is revealed about Tommy Molto, the more that sleazy feeling grows. O-T Fagbenle is perfectly infuriating as Nico Della Guardia, from his general condescending demeanour and insincere tony of voice, perfectly embodying a person who sees being the District Attorney as a beneath himself role acting as a stepping stone to a more powerful position. There are no weak characters or performances within this show.

Presumed Innocent doesn’t shy away from the brutality of Carolyn’s murder, often tactfully using unreliably reconstructed flashbacks of the attack to add in elements of new information or revelations, and the impact of the crime ripples throughout the show with its effective use.

Harnessing the intensity of a riveting murder mystery, a tense court room drama, and the raw energy of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, Presumed Innocent utilises the episodic format to be an entertaining, brutal and addictive watch that will have you itching for next week’s episode to arrive.

The first three episodes of Presumed Innocent are now streaming on Apple TV+, with weekly episodes dropping until the finale on July 24.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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Withstanding the test of fiction and time, the court room drama, when done well, makes for riveting story telling and showcases some of film and televisions most intense performances, creating truly iconic moments on the screen. Serving as the second screen adaptation of Scott Turow’s...An intense Jake Gyllenhaal leads the relentless and riveting Presumed Innocent