Apple TV+ review: Defending Jacob
James R | On 24, Apr 2020
Already seen Defending Jacob? Read on at the bottom for our spoiler-filled notes on the finale.
Chris Evans riding a bike. Chris Evans throwing a metal shield. Chris Evans riding a train. Chris going into space. Chris Evans doing a grindy thingy on a skateboard. Chris Evans growing a beard. Chris Evans is one of those actors that you could happily watch doing anything. So it’s no surprise that Apple should snap up the star as the latest big name to lead one of its original series. Chris Evans Defending Jacob? Who wouldn’t watch that?
The drama, based on the 2012 New York Times best-selling novel of the same name, sees Evans play Andy, an assistant district attorney whose life is good and family is picture-perfect. But things go awry when Ben, a 14-year-old pupil, is found dead in the woods just outside of town – and his son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell), becomes a key suspect. It’s a shock to Andy and Laurie (Michelle Dockery), who find themselves trying to maintain their child’s innocence while also fending off the increasingly hostile town locals.
Needless to say, it’s not a cheerful watch, and director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) laces everything with a gloomy, ominous mood – think John Grisham by way of Gilliam Flynn, or Ozark crossed with Broadchurch. That dour tone gives Evans a chance to play downbeat and dogged for a change, undercutting his clean-cut, cheerful persona with something more dubious. Because out from underneath the polished surface of the do-gooder lawyer emerges a more toxic male figure, a man who doesn’t like to discuss emotions, shuts down conversations about awkward subjects and doesn’t really know his son at all. While he’s busy going all To Kill a Mockingbird, you can’t help but wonder whether, really, he needs to talk about Jacob.
Dockery is equally good as the heart-wrenched mother having to face not only her son’s possible guilt but also the gradual ostracisation of the whole family unit from the community. Between them, Martell is wonderfully ambiguous, just enough to leave us unsure how innocent he is, which drives the underlying tension.
Outlaw King scribe Mark Bomback keeps the narrative wheels turning slowly, but never too slowly that we switch off, drip-feeding reveals to keep you bingeing through the first three episodes (the rest will be released weekly) – and wondering just how unpredictable and mad the show’s twisting secrets will become by the end of its eight episodes.
The result isn’t groundbreakingly original, and plays out in the same mould as other prestige TV thrillers du jour, but Defending Jacob’s cast give it a realism that’s undeniably compelling. Did we mention Chris Evans?
Defending Jacob is available on Apple TV+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, with a 7-day free trial. New episodes arrive every Friday.
Case notes (spoilers)
Chris Evans really gets to flex his dramatic muscles through all eight episodes of the series, not least because the whole action is intercut with him being grilled at some kind of grand jury indictment. The show does a wonderful job of pirouetting around what exactly he’s being questioned for – and when Jacob is officially cleared at trial, and Evans gets a rare chance to smile and relax, it becomes clear there’s more to his questioning than first meets the eye.
Jacob’s innocence comes about because another man, Leonard Patz, writes a confession to killing Ben – but, in a nice reveal, we realise that Leonard (who commits suicide) was forced into writing the false confession by an associate of Andy’s father. Played with menace by JK Simmons, he’s an intimidating figure, even from behind prison bars, but Simmons brings a note of melancholy to the part of the estranged, imprisoned dad, a guy who, after a violent past, makes one more dubious act in the hope of saving the future of his grandson by stopping him from being banged up like he was.
The complexity of that father-son bond gives a welcome depth to what would otherwise be a prestige pot-boiler, highlighting how little Andy and his own son know each other; the revelations of Jacob’s use of a certain website is a chilling moment that plays into how callous and antisocial Martell’s screen presence is.
That realisation, and that relentless uncertainty, haunts Andy even as we join the family going on holiday after the trial – and there’s a heartstopping moment when the girl Andy meets goes missing. When Andy confesses to Laurie that Jacob might not have been innocent at all sends them both back to that hell of wondering whether he’s not their kind, loving son after all.
The series, which changes the ending from William Landay’s 2012 novel, takes the bold decision to keep both characters – and us – in that nightmarish limbo. While Holly does turn up OK in the end, Laurie loses it and, while interrogating Jacob intensely in a car, drives them into the wall by a tunnel. Jacob survives, but while he and Holly remaining alive seems to pitch the show into more hopeful territory, it only reinforces the uncertainty haunting both parents, as Laurie doesn’t remember what happened and Andy insists that it was an accident – a man who still hasn’t learnt to communicate and be honest about his innermost fears.
How ironic, then, that Andy’s questioning is at a grand jury indictment not for Jacob killing Ben, or for Jacob killing Holly, but for whether Laurie intentionally harmed her son. He defends her with an earnest conviction, but the closer we look, that earnestness feels closer to desperation – a showcase for Evans’ acting talents, and a strong final flourish that keeps this twisting thriller grounded in character and performance.