I would have liked it if Absence of Malice has been more engaging on an aesthetic level – cinematographically speaking, there’s nothing particularly exciting here. To be completely honest, even the story failed to grip me in the way that I would have liked. I knew that I had mostly positive feelings about what was going down, but something seemed… off.
But then there came a point, somewhere near the end, when it struck me what makes the movie great. What really makes this movie is the fact that the goal that it’s reaching toward is abstract. It’s not working toward something tangible this time. The boy is not trying to get the girl. The good guys are not trying to catch the bad guys. The Iron Man is not trying to stop the whatever from blowing up the world. The conclusion of the plot does not come in some drawn-out fight sequence. Instead, the thing that drives the plot is more complex and therefore takes more effort to comprehend. If you’re not right there with the characters, paying attention to exactly what it is that is going on, you’re likely to miss the pay-off entirely.
Maybe you’ll be able to figure it out faster than I did. The movie follows a newspaper reporter named Megan Carter (Fields). She is following a case that the police have been working on for years, something about the mysterious disappearance/death of a union official. The prosecutor working on the case tips Carter off that the police were investigating a man named Michael Gallagher (Newman). Now, Gallagher’s involvement in the crime (or lack thereof) is inconsequential. What matters is that Carter published the story despite that facts were slim, acting on her lawyer’s advice that since they believed that the story was true then there was an “absence of malice”… ergo, Gallagher has no legal recourse. Are you with me still?
So Gallagher has to fight on two fronts. There are the police, who are keeping an eye on him at all times; there are also the media, who have labeled him a public figure and are printing stories about him and ruining his reputation. But Gallagher isn’t the only person involved in this odd tangle. Carter has to argue with herself before each piece she writes, debating the ethical implications both for legality and for her own conscience. The newspapers don’t just report the story, they create the story. It is not merely a question of what information to include in the news, even the word choice can have drastic effects. When asked how to describe a couple’s relationship, one of the characters ponders the question for a moment before responding: “Say that we were… involved.”
The title begins to take on several different meanings, depending on which perspective you wish to take the events from. Was the newspaperwoman truly absent of malice when she printed the stories about Gallagher? Was the prosecutor absent of malice when he leaked the investigation to Carter? Is Gallagher absent of malice when he finally decides to take matters into his own hands and form a resistance against the powers attacking him (and remember, this is all in the abstract)? Or even on a smaller scale – the union members who worked for Gallagher, certainly they are absent of malice for their boss when they feel obliged to go on strike to protect their own careers.
You might say that the abstract goal here is truth. To say that might be true, but not accurate. It’s kind of hard to pinpoint exactly what the real goal over-all is. A shared sense of ethical responsibility, certainly. But as the final events show us, even Gallagher himself isn’t afraid to blur the lines of ethics in order to make things work out in his favor. Does that make him no worse than the rest of them? Are any of them truly bad at all? The movie invites these questions. Even if they are not answered completely by the time the credits roll, the mere fact that the film can lead its viewers to these thoughts makes it wonderful.
I can’t end this review without saying that, yes, Wilford Brimley’s cameo was fantastic. His purposeful control of the scene made an otherwise casual proceeding into a tense showdown of wills. I loved it. I still do wish that there had been more style to the settings, but overall I am… absent of malice for Absence of Malice!