Stuffy newsrooms, Paul Newman, and Sydney Pollack in the director’s chair, Absence of Malice has all the fundamental makings of a clear shot success. Following a reporter duped into running a false story, this 80s thriller piece follows one innocent man attempting to clear his name of allegations that have nothing to do with him. Presumably the IPSO code of ethics wasn’t around back in the day, and the whole affair could’ve been avoided had it been for a few background checks. Still, trivialities such as that shouldn’t stop us from engaging with or enjoying with a relatively solid, but unfortunately forgettable flick that doesn’t quite capitalise on its sudden blowouts.
The ability to say whatever you like about someone and have no legal ramifications for whatever you do say brings in the question of whether or not one should actually do it. Surely it would be fine to do something if the law allows you to, but at the expense of another livelihood, and it begs the question as to whether or not it’s a morally guided decision. Absence of Malice has that question in its back pocket, but never quite manages to use it. It swings rapidly from romance to thriller, dirty dealings to courtroom drama, all in such a quick succession that it’s futile to try and keep up with the erratic behaviour the film partakes in.
Hokey at times, the production value isn’t all there. Pollack’s direction observes some rather febrile moments, and the lack of pacing is a clear example of that. It’s a film that has all the hallmarks of a rather generic piece, from its music cues to its dialogue, its main actor features in his waning years of stardom, and turns in a performance that shows the squeaky aches of age. He’s not the wry charmer he was in The Great Escape, nor is he turning in a performance battling with addictions or despair like The Verdict. Sally Field is, however, on hand to give a superb leading role, a journalist who feels guilty writing a story she finds out to be full of unconfirmed truths and shady dealings. It’s an interesting role that lacks that extra effort necessary to get the film over the finish line, but Field is a safe draw for any film.
Not lacking in quality, but certainly nothing to show for such a tremendous collation of cast and crew, Absence of Malice is rather banal and by the numbers. It’s a thriller with all the expected twists and turns. Trying to craft a collage of varyingly successful dramatic styles and subjects, Pollack fails to realise that the beauty of any great thriller is the simplicity, or, for the more intelligent and packed moments, the way in which our story unwinds. Absence of Malice has neither the simplicity or the intelligence for either, and fumbles its way through dramatic prose, all of which varies in degrees of quality.