The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial

(William Friedkin, USA, 2023)


The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which premiered shortly after William Friedkin’s death at age 87, is a sturdy expression of the director’s classical side – rather than the jagged modernism that informed his filmography from The Birthday Party (1968) to Bug (2006).

Referring back to the era of live TV drama (in which Friedkin began his career), this is a study of human psychology under the pressure of both a closed space – a military courtroom – and a compressed time frame. This auteur’s tight mise en scène, and his ability to collaborate with actors, have never been better showcased.

Friedkin’s script makes some superficial alterations to Herman Wouk’s story (the naval mutiny in question occurs in the Persian Gulf rather than during World War II, major players in the trial are black and female), but the well-known core of the drama remains. Lieutenant Maryk (Jake Lacy) faces a charge of mutiny for replacing, at the height of a crisis at sea, his Commander, Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland) – whom he judged to be unstable and paranoid.

Maryk’s defense is argued by the wily Greenwald (Jason Clarke), who faces off against Challee (Monica Raymund) for the prosecution. Friedkin leaves in the single most memorable detail of any production, in any medium, of this play: Queeg’s habit of ostentatiously rolling two metal balls between his fingers at moments of high tension.

It is easy to tell what drew Friedkin to this material. For almost its entire running time, it appears to support an interpretation of events that is anti-authoritarian – in other words, on the side of Maryk and his youthfulness. There’s a grim satisfaction in watching Queeg crumble under intense examination, a sadistic spectacle that seems to illustrate every critical thing said or suggested about him.

But a few grey zones – Greenwald’s personal opinion of the case, and the role in events played by Maryk’s close friend, Keefer (Lewis Pullman) – set the ground for a final scene reversal. And Friedkin finds there, as he did so often during his brilliant career, one last opportunity for a strong, sudden cut to black before the end credits roll.

This review is excerpted from the essay “Shock Tactics: William Friedkin (1935-2023)” commissioned for the November 2023 issue of Sight and Sound (UK).

MORE Friedkin: The Exorcist, Jade, Rules of Engagement, Cruising

© Adrian Martin 17 September 2023

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search