“A sensational performance”, said the New York Times. “A shambling comic turn… with genuine emotional ambivalence”, read Variety. “He’s perfect”, wrote G. Allen Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle. No, these critics weren’t referring to Robert De Niro or Al Pacino in of their prime-era performances. Their praise was rather reserved for another, altogether different star, in a movie you might not even know exists.
Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty was released in the US on March 17th 2006. Probably owing to its dreadful box office there – $1 million in takings, on a $13 million budget – Lumet’s penultimate picture never even reached the UK. It made its unglamorous British debut instead on Freeview, perhaps appropriately: a wordy courtroom drama backed by a Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque comic score, Find Me Guilty looks like something Lumet made for television, not cinema.
It can be engrossing, but also visually unambitious and clunkily edited. It’s definitively not one of the filmmaker’s finest. But it does have an ace: what Roger Ebert himself called a “remarkable performance” from lead Vin Diesel.
Even in Lumet’s lesser movies, there’s usually at least one great performance to recommend a watch. This was a consummate actors’ director, with particular form in pushing the previously underestimated into giving career-best turns (see Sean Connery in The Hill, or Faye Dunaway on Oscar-winning form in Network). There are several solid performances in Find Me Guilty – from Peter Dinklage as a snappy attorney, and from The Godfather’s Alex Rocco as a sinister aged crime boss – but no one tops Diesel. Loose and humorous, as a Mafioso jailbird who decides to represent himself when put on trial with his old gangster pals, Diesel gives an entirely different performance to anything you’ll find in his glut of actioners.
Jackie DiNorscio is a character far removed from any other Diesel antihero – he’s a plump windbag who can’t sleep at night without his favorite chair, a six foot bruiser visibly intimidated by Dinklage’s four foot-something lawyer – but he nevertheless feels like the kind of guy Diesel always wanted to play.
Where in his action movies he’s stiffly artificial, a composite cliché of an action man, Diesel is easily natural in Find Me Guilty. And that unmistakable gravelly boom of a voice, Diesel’s most striking feature, is used for comic effect, with Diesel evidently – like De Niro – at his funniest when he’s playing a role apoplectically bad-tempered.
All Vin Diesel movies other than Find Me Guilty trade on the idea that Diesel is an emblem of cool. Only Vin Diesel isn’t cool – he’s a self-confessed Dungeons & Dragonsnerd who in interview wears a disarmingly earnest goofball perma-grin as he talks up his own films with fanboyish enthusiasm. He’s sensitive, lately painfully frank about the personal impact of the death of friend and co-star Paul Walker. He can be funny, poking at his own masculinity and sonorous vocals (“the world vibrates when I talk”). These are sides to Vin Diesel that no Vin Diesel movie explores; none, that is, except Find Me Guilty, in which Diesel is forced to be at his most human and vulnerable.
There’s a great little scene halfway through Guilty where Jackie is offered respite from dinner alone in his jail cell and given permission to eat with “the fellas”, his fellow gangsters-on-trial – all of them still free men, unlike Jackie, only months into serving a 30-year prison sentence for selling narcotics. Jackie enters the dining room with a child-like glee, laughing as he makes his way to the buffet spread. Alex Rocco’s Nick Calabrese – convinced Jackie will rat on his friends to cut short his own sentence – caustically tells him to leave. Jackie appears hurt, a boy told off by his father, before he defiantly sulks off to eat by himself in the corner of the room, wounded and raging. Diesel in this one scene is more convincing, and displays more range than he does in the entire Fast & Furious series.
Diesel has said before that he is “of ambiguous, chameleon-like ethnicity,” and he has, as AlterNetput it, a head “shaved so cleanly that no one knows exactly how much hair he might have.” It makes Diesel an intriguing blank slate, a kind of Mr Potato Head for acting – only he’s been misused all his career, filmmakers often failing to take advantage of his elasticity. Not Sidney Lumet: in Find Me Guilty, Diesel’s almost unrecognizable, padded with a prosthetic belly and wig, layered with a hint of old-man makeup and speaking in sing-song Italian-American rhythms. Clearly Lumet understood like no other director Diesel’s potential for transformation.
In his latest film, The Last Witch Hunter, Diesel is in contrast back to old tricks. He looks the way he’s looked and acts the way he’s acted in virtually every one of the nine films he’s made since Find Me Guilty. The only real “human” performance he’s given since, meanwhile, ironically came in a movie in which he voiced a talking tree.
G Allen Johnson wrote of Find Me Guilty: “[Lumet] draws some terrific performances from the actors, starting with Diesel (who knew he had it in him?), whose charismatic performance might signal a whole new direction in his career.”
Obviously, Find Me Guilty didn’t come to represent a shift in the career of Vin Diesel, someone who had up to that point hinted at acting chops that his action movies weren’t doing enough to test. Instead of being a turning point, Find Me Guilty now just looks like an anomaly for Diesel, with actioners like the Fast And Furious films and most recently The Last Witch Hunter – movies which fail to push Diesel acting-wise – remaining the norm.
Perhaps Find Me Guilty tanking put Diesel off returning to purely dramatic work (the film made just $2.6 million worldwide, nothing in comparison to Diesel’s blockbusters). Or maybe Diesel found the experience too demanding, and ultimately unrewarding when the movie flopped. You can’t help but watch Find Me Guilty though and wish it had been the start of a change for Diesel, a star who has nowhere else found an outlet to so effectively poke fun at his hard-man image.
It’s to Diesel what Copland is to Stallone: proof that there’s depth buried underneath the muscles and swagger, made all the more special by its singularity, in the repertoire of an action hero who secretly always had more to give.