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Jake Gyllenhaal’s ‘Presumed Innocent’ Review: Summer Best TV Binge

Distending their source material to egregious lengths with unnecessary exposition, superfluous additions, and ham-fisted “timeliness,” most long-form TV adaptations of popular films have severely underwhelmed. Consequently, it’s a welcome relief to report that Presumed Innocent, which premieres June 12, is the excellent exception to this most unfortunate of rules.

Created and largely written by David E. Kelley (A Man in Full, Big Little Lies), and starring Jake Gyllenhaal in the role first played on the big-screen in 1990 by Harrison Ford, this eight-part version of Scott Turow’s 1987 bestseller is a thriller par excellence, this despite the fact that, per modern convention, it switches things up (some major, some minor), adds a few subplots, and updates its story for the 21st-century. Gripping from the start, it would earn the distinction of being “binge-able” if not for the fact that its episodes will premiere weekly on Apple TV+—although that release strategy simply means that it should be the television talk of the summer, which is fitting considering Turow’s novel has long been an ideal beach read.

In present-day Chicago, deputy district attorney Rusty Sabich’s (Gyllenhaal) relaxing afternoon with wife Barbara (Ruth Negga) and kids Jaden (Chase Infiniti) and Kyle (Kingston Rumi Southwick) is interrupted by horrific news: his colleague Carolyn Polhemus (Renate Reinsve) has been murdered. If that weren’t shocking enough, the scene is unbelievably grisly, as Carolyn was bludgeoned to death with a fire poker from her apartment and left to bleed out from her wounds on her living room floor, face down and hog-tied. This homicide throws Rusty into turmoil, and it does likewise for the rest of those in his office, including district attorney Raymond Horgan (Bill Camp), who’s running for re-election against Nico Della Guardia (O-T Fagbenie). Tensions are already high between Raymond and Nico, and that goes double for Rusty and Nico’s right-hand protégé Tommy Molto (Peter Sarsgaard), and their explosive professional dynamics are thoroughly detonated by Carolyn’s demise.

Working with co-writers Miki Johnson and Sharr White, Kelley establishes an amazing number of interpersonal details in short order, all as he lays out the early specifics of the crime and its fallout. In the immediate aftermath of this slaying, Rusty’s attention turns to Liam Reynolds (Mark Harelik), whom he and Carolyn put behind bars for life for the murder—and eerily similar hog-tying—of a prostitute. Once Nico wins Raymond’s job, Rusty finds himself demoted in favor of his bitter and antagonistic rival Tommy. While that wounds his pride, it becomes a far graver problem after Tommy discovers the secret that Rusty has been hiding from his colleagues, even during the first crucial steps of the investigation: He had been carrying on a lengthy affair with Carolyn, and had actively steered people away from discovering it.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Ruth Negga, Chase Infiniti, and Kingston Rumi Southwick in Presumed Innocent.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Ruth Negga, Chase Infiniti, and Kingston Rumi Southwick

Apple TV+

This naturally makes Rusty look guilty, and once Tommy gets to work, things go from bad to worse for Gyllenhaal’s protagonist, whom it’s revealed was present at Carolyn’s house on the night in question, and was in love with her and obsessed with maintaining the relationship despite her desire to call it off. Knowing how the system works, Rusty isn’t surprised when he’s subsequently arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Nonetheless, in the face of oppressive media coverage, he maintains his innocence while valiantly trying to salvage his home life—a not-inconsiderable feat given that his kids are blown away by every aspect of this nightmare and Barbara, who knew about the affair but didn’t realize her husband had resumed it in recent weeks, grapples with her own feelings of fury, humiliation, resentment, and loyalty.

The most important of Kelley’s many alterations to Turow’s original is a greater emphasis on Barbara’s struggle to reconcile her protective and selfish instincts, and thanks to Negga’s superb performance, she proves to be a compelling second center of attention. In fact, Presumed Innocent is overflowing with accomplished actors doing stellar work, from Camp as the irresistibly combative Raymond to Sarsgaard as the detestably slimy Tommy to Elizabeth Marvel (Camp’s real-life spouse) as Raymond’s intensely suspicious wife Lorraine. Not one of them makes a single misstep, and that’s also true of Gyllenhaal, who embodies Rusty as both a likeably arrogant and noble attorney and a duplicitous cheater and potentially scary loose cannon. As in Turow’s novel, there are multiple suggestions that Rusty might be guilty, and Gyllenhaal hints at his character’s duality with a deftness that makes the man’s traits seem like warring sides of the same coin.

Various additional suspects are littered throughout Presumed Innocent, from Liam to a boozy prostitute client (Marco Rodríguez) to Carolyn’s ex-partner Dalton (Matthew Alan) and their estranged teenage son Michael (Tate Birchmore), who—in one of many stunning developments—was outside his mother’s house, recording Rusty’s arrival, on her final night. There are bombshells galore in this twisty tale, as well as plenty of fireworks, and Kelley handles it all with confident dexterity. Each of his narrative right-turn begets a bit of electric whiplash, and that continues to be the case when the show segues from the investigative to the trial phase, during which a raft of complications drive Rusty to take drastic measures to exonerate himself before a fair judge (Noma Dumezweni) and a jury of his peers. Even at its most outlandish, Kelley manages to sell everything as realistic, and that goes a long way toward making the proceedings at once urgent and—courtesy of fragmentary flashbacks and dream sequences—psychologically gripping.

Ostensibly, those familiar with this saga will know where it’s headed. Still, Apple TV+ didn’t provide press with advance copies of the finale, so there’s no way to definitively state that the series follows the book’s lead to the very end. Considering how well it pulls off so many things in advance of that conclusion, however, the show more than earns the right to do whatever it likes with its tale. A rebuke to the commonly held belief that such stretched-thin adaptations are just easily marketed cash grabs, Presumed Innocent does justice to Turow’s nail-biter and, better yet, stands on its own as the sort of small-screen (figurative) page-turner for which streaming platforms were made.

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