‘Presumed Innocent’ Review: Jake Gyllenhaal’s Apple Adaptation Is a Snarky Take on the Harrison Ford Classic

In “Presumed Innocent,” the city of Chicago is rocked to its core by the gruesome murder of Caroline Polhemus (Renate Reinsve), a rising prosecutor in the district attorney’s office. But none more so than her closest colleague, Rusty Sabich (Jake Gyllenhaal). The race to find her killer becomes the political battleground of the season thanks to a vicious DA election, and the search for the truth throws Rusty into the courtroom, not as a lawyer but as the prime suspect. The clues have all begun to point towards him, and since he was once Caroline’s lover, Rusty’s battle to prove his innocence will be the toughest of his career.

In the ever-crowded field of 21st-century prestige TV, it’s somewhat surprising that the good old-fashioned courtroom drama hasn’t made a grander comeback. The genre dominated film of the ‘80s and ‘90s thanks to the likes of John Grisham and Scott Turow, the latter of whom dominated the bestseller lists with “Presumed Innocent” in 1987. A movie adaptation starring Harrison Ford soon followed, a glossy sexy drama that felt like the natural stopgap between “The Pelican Brief” and “Basic Instinct.”

Apple’s new adaptation of Turow’s novel comes to us courtesy of David E. Kelley, a showrunner who can make a slick, propulsive courtroom series with his eyes closed (“Ally McBeal,” “Harry’s Law). Certainly, this one feels like classic Kelley, although it doesn’t quite reach the peaks of its genre counterparts.

O-T Fagbenle and Peter Sarsgaard in “Presumed Innocent.” (Apple TV+)

This “Presumed Innocent” presents the murder as merely the foundation for a sleazier battle. Polhemus’ death, shown starkly in the pilot episode and baring an impossible-to-ignore resemblance to a sex crime, is viewed with surprising coldness by the camera and characters alike. The DA’s office is in the midst of a scathing electoral race between the failing old-school incumbent Raymond Horgan (Bill Camp, ever reliable and profanely appealing) and the scheming social climber Nico Della Guardia (O-T Fagbenle), who proudly uses Caroline’s death as campaign fodder. When Della Guardia’s right-hand man Tommy Molto (Peter Sarsgaard, slimy and with the haircut to match) nitpicks Rusty’s case, it’s clear he’s doing it for his own benefit and not that of Caroline.

Rusty isn’t a knight in shining armor either. He’s as smarmy as his opponents and his own agenda is hardly virtuous. He whines to his therapist about how Caroline ferociously pursued their affair, and has a brief outburst when he admits he can’t stop thinking about her. As he becomes the defendant in the city’s case, any semblance of empathy he may have had quickly dissipates. If “Presumed Innocent” has anything going for it, it’s the willingness to let every single character in its vast ensemble (with almost every role played by a beloved character actor) be shamelessly mean. It does begin to wear thin as the series progresses but the commitment to this often off-putting brutality is something to behold. When the side of law and justice is as transparently nasty as the so-called bad guys, you cannot help but want the entire courtroom to sink into oblivion.

Jake Gyllenhaal is an actor forever torn between his handsome leading man facade and his inner weirdo character actor. While he’s long shown himself capable of traditional starring parts (the kind that the previous Rusty Sabich, Harrison Ford, made his bread and butter for decades), he’s at his most intriguing when he swings for the fences. In “Presumed Innocent”, he’s a simmering pot waiting to boil over; a morally conflicted man whose expensive suits barely hide the tight knots of his tension and paranoia over the case and his ties to Caroline. It gives Gyllenhaal a chance to play around in that space between classic and strange, halfway from Ford and Willem Dafoe. While Rusty is at times sympathetic, even pitiable, Gyllenhaal gets more room to flex when he’s at his most contemptible, whether it’s sparring with his brother-in-law Sarsgaard or avoiding the truth with his wife Barbara (Ruth Negga, thankfully given more to do than be the token disappointed spouse.) The way he talks about Caroline will make you want to scream. It does, however, stretch credulity to have Gyllenhaal as a frustrated middle-aged lawyer when he has a body that will not quit and is on frequent display for our pleasure.

Ruth Negga and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Presumed Innocent.” (Apple TV+)

Much of “Presumed Innocent” feels like a throwback, a near-retro revival of those courtroom stories that are more likely to be found on the bookshelves in 2024 than on TV. Certainly, Kelley seems in his element playing around with the tropes that he staked his claim on way back in the days of “L.A. Law.” Even the sexual details seem more familiar to the days of slick erotic thrillers from three decades past than for the Apple TV+ of now. There have been efforts made to modernize this fare. The cast is more diverse, the cinematography is straight out of the prestige TV handbook (meaning it’s more grimy and poorly lit than noir-esque), and everyone swears like a sailor on shore leave. Unlike its genre forebearers, or even the original film, this series is curiously distant. Everything is kept at an arm’s length. Even the steamy affair between Rusty and Caroline is shot with coldness. The real heat is in the courtroom itself, between men who want nothing more than to step on one another to get to the top of the ladder.

But there is a reason this genre endures, and “Presumed Innocent” is never less than enjoyable, even when it falters with maintaining its kinetic pace. There are plenty of twists and turns, and Gyllenhaal is a sturdy anchor holding it all together, aided by one of the more enviable casts on TV right now. Perhaps this is a genre we don’t need to modernize. It all holds up without the need to drag proceedings into the current age of prestige entertainment. Though it could stand to let itself be a tad looser.

“Presumed Innocent” premieres Wednesday, June 12, Apple TV+.

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