American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
“Criminal Law” is a textbook example of a movie going wrong before our very eyes, because of the curious failure of the filmmakers to realize that you can toy with an audience only so long before the audience grows resentful. What happens is this. The movie has success, at an early moment, with that standard thriller editing device, the False Alarm. This is a cliche in three beats (so frequently used that I also discuss it in another of this weekend’s openings, “Horror Show”).
The way it always goes is, first we get a scare. Then it turns out the scare was nothing - only a cat, say, or a shadow. Then, just while we’re laughing at being so foolishly taken in, the real scare leaps out at us.
But it will not work if you overuse it. As a general rule, I doubt if it can be used more than twice in the same movie before the audience begins to grow too conscious of it. “Criminal Law” uses it at least six or seven times, and the last half hour of the film is so heavily loaded with False Alarms that I could feel the audience growing restless and finally rebellious: What were they seeing here, a movie or some kind of a Pavlovian response test? Perhaps the film’s director, Martin Campbell, wasn’t fully aware of how much he was overemploying the device. But didn’t the editor, Christopher Wimble, realize what was happening? It’s the editor’s job to backstop the director on such matters as pacing and tone and to ask embarrassing questions about how much an audience can be expected to take. What happens during the course of “Criminal Law” is almost painful to watch, as the film first grabs the audience, then fascinates it, then begins to make it uneasy and ends by completely alienating it. This movie ought to be shown in film schools as a textbook example of how to throw away the audience’s sympathy.