Powerfully written and directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, "12" is a Russian reimagining of the 1957 Sidney Lumet film "12 Angry Men."
Twelve jurors are confined to a makeshift jury room in an elementary school to decide the guilt or innocence of an 18-year-old Chechen boy accused of murdering his adoptive father, a Russian officer. The men couldn't be more different in their backgrounds. Among them are a laborer from the transport authority, the CEO of a joint Russian-Japanese corporation, a director of a cemetery, a television producer, a taxi driver and a variety show performer.
At first, no one takes the task very seriously. Everyone is ready to vote to convict so they can resume their busy lives. One juror, the CEO, passionately demands a discussion of the case before sentencing the boy to life in prison. Although he also believes the boy to be guilty, he feels that justice demands they at least deliberate. The other jurors spew hate and prejudice. The boy becomes an easy target upon which they heap their frustration at the changing social landscape of Russia. So begins the debate that rages throughout the night.
As the case arguments consume the group, each man tells an extremely personal and, seemingly, unrelated story that sways his opinion of the case. Each story is more powerful than the last, delivered with such raw emotion that you can't take your eyes off the screen. The CEO tells of his second chance. The performer reminisces on the only smile he ever earned. Next to this open pain and sentiment is the brutal rage of the taxi driver, an ardent ethnic chauvinist, who believes the boy is guilty simply because he is Chechen. No one is safe from his ranting. He continuously lobs insults at the Jewish professor and Georgian surgeon. He berates and violently bullies the weaker jurors to his will.
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The most intense of these arguments is over whether a man a head shorter than his victim can stab from above. The taxi driver grabs the knife in evidence and lunges at the surgeon as if he's actually going to stab him. The surgeon turns the tables with an even greater intensity.
The stories are the heartbeat of the film and the jury room action is delivered with stage play intimacy. Mikhalkov continuously cuts back to the boy in his prison cell after each revelation, a silent comment on what's truly at stake. The boy's mood and energy level gradually rise as the jurors are turned one by one to the camp of reasonable doubt. We also see glimmers of the boy's early life and snapshots of the crime that become clearer as new evidence is discussed.
The film holds you at arm's length, then gradually lets you in. It's like straining to peek through a keyhole and then flinging the door off its hinges to reveal the truth. The juror's names are never used. Mikhalkov wants us to discover each character on his own terms. After each story, the humanity of each man burns brightly, casting out the earlier shadows of fear and anger.
"12" is about two hours of gripping drama. It should have been about 30 minutes shorter. There's one post-battle scene that we see about four times too many, and a bird metaphor throughout that doesn't add anything to the film. Some of Mikhalkov's brilliance also is lost in the subtitle translation. The opening scene, in particular, is a compelling collage of repeated takes on the boy's family, the crime and the judge reading the jury instructions. The subtitles could only keep up with one stream of consciousness. Here's hoping a DVD dubbed version will clean that up so American audiences can experience the full effect.