‘Defending Jacob’ Review

An ordinary couple’s world is shaken when their son is accused of murder, especially when they start to doubt his innocence themselves

Starring Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell, Cherry Jones, Pablo Schreiber, Betty Gabriel, Sakina Jaffrey, and J. K. Simmons

Defending Jacob introduces us to the seemingly perfect Barber family: Andy Barber (Chris Evans), a respected lawyer, caring wife Laurie (Michelle Dockery), who turns her kindly spirit outwards as director of a children’s home, and fourteen-year old Jacob (Jaeden Martell), who is sullen, quiet, a little bit creepy but generally inoffensive. That is, until he is accused of murdering his classmate Ben Rifkin in what initially appears like social media mudslinging.

Then there’s the reaction to Ben’s murder, and Jacob’s disgruntlement at the sudden outpouring of love for somebody who he thinks unlikable and unpleasant. And the knife in his bedroom matching the description of the murder weapon, which he claims that he’s never used. Then, his fingerprints are found on the body. Stories are found on a website that describe in excruciating detail Ben’s murder, signed with Jacob’s initials. Coupled with the violent and unsettling contents of Jacob’s internet search history, and the intense pressure placed upon them by the media and the internet, formerly loyal parents Andy and Laurie are tested to the absolute limit in their trust of their son.

The series really expands upon how intense a pressure cooker Laurie and Andy are living in, and how the accusations against Jacob take over their whole lives. Andy would like nothing more than to defend his son himself, though obviously he is unable to, yet finds himself entirely consumed with the particulars of the case, desperate to find evidence to prove his son innocent and finding the pursuit increasingly more fruitless. Laurie, meanwhile, finds herself shunned by her friends and her job and entirely isolated and alone, living in fear of her own child, second guessing everything she thought she knew about him, and completely out of step with her husband.

Based off William Landay’s novel, Defending Jacob delights in the unanswered and the ambiguous. While the miniseries goes much further than the book does in explicitly answering particular scenarios (the ending of the book is much more powerful), this is still reflected on screen. It’s less about actually finding out what happened to Ben than it is about Andy and Laurie’s reactions to it, and this is where the compelling drama comes from. Chris Evans turns in a brilliant performance as a highly logical man, who has faith and trust in the system, only to find himself completely powerless and unable to use his knowledge and smarts to fix this problem. Michelle Dockery really gets to grips with the way that Laurie becomes beaten down, with increasing brittleness and fragility as the show wears on, while Jaeden Martell walks that fine line between a creepy sociopath or just an ordinary, sullen teenager who finds himself misunderstood by those around him.

In line with the lack of nuance within the TV adaptation, and the frustrating changes made towards the end, there are ridiculous phrases banded around, such as an ongoing plot surrounding a supposed “killer gene”, which would be reductionist at best. There’s also a strange fear around Jacob being involved with kinky pornography and on bondage sites, because having sexual preferences is, of course, some sort of mental affliction, which is how you know that this story was written by a straight, middle-class white male of a particular age, because nothing’s more terrifying than sex in any position other than missionary.

Putting that to one side, Defending Jacob really nails its tone and hones in on the emotions of the family at its core. It’s less about the crime procedural elements, as it is the slow unravelling and deconstruction of the foundation of the life that Andy and Laurie have built for themselves, all because of the seeds of doubt that are sewn by Ben Rifkin’s murder and the revelation that their son isn’t exactly who they thought he was, or hoped he would be.

Defending Jacob is available to watch on Apple TV+.

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