Defending Jacob review: Chris Evans escapes from under the shadow of Marvel in new Apple TV thriller
Creator - Mark Bomback
Cast - Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell, Cherry Jones, Pablo Schreiber
Chris Evans and his beard star in Defending Jacob, the Apple TV+ original series, about the implosion of a small family after their teenaged son is accused of killing a schoolmate.
Easily among the better originals the tech giant has produced since its inception late last year, Defending Jacob proves that Evans has more to offer as an actor beyond the Marvel films, and that regardless of how many times Jaeden Martell changes his name, he will forever remain Hollywood’s favourite to play creepy kids.
Watch the Defending Jacob trailer here
Martell, who used to go by Jaeden Lieberher, most recently played a sniveling alt-right creepo (also named Jacob) in the terrific Knives Out (also starring Evans). Before that, he played the objectively psychopathic Henry in The Book of Henry. In Defending Jacob, he plays assistant district attorney Andy Barber’s son, who is accused of murdering a boy that used to bully him.
Jacob attracts suspicion because he once bragged about owning a knife, he openly voiced his hatred for the murdered boy several times, and for emanating a generally unsettling vibe. In the trial that follows (and makes up for a solid chunk of the eight-episode miniseries’ run-time), you don’t ever root for Jacob; you root for his father instead.
You see, unlike Martell, whose casting is obviously a calculated move deserving of much praise, Chris Evans is an American sweetheart. There isn’t a second where you don’t want him (and his beard) to pull through. Nor is there a single moment when you’re convinced of Jacob’s innocence. The show sustains this discomfort for nearly eight hours, thanks to some truly cracking writing by creator Mark Bomback, and restraining direction by Oscar-nominee Morten Tyldum.
Jacob’s arrest rocks the foundations of the Barber family, and also of Andy’s promising career at the DA’s office. Almost overnight, the family becomes a pariah in the community, while law enforcement and a particularly smarmy professional rival of Andy’s go about exhuming the ghosts in their closet.
Despite its dour tone, which reminded me of HBO’s The Night Of, with which it shares actor Poorna Jagannathan, Defending Jacob keeps the twists coming. Some of them are truly unexpected, and inject fresh energy into a story that some might find a tad too one-note to really enjoy.
But it’s more than just a pulp thriller. Defending Jacob, with its cinematic visuals and unique story structure – we keep flashing forward to a sort of interrogation, much like what they did in the first season of Big Little Lies – positively reeks of ‘prestige drama’. There’s little humour to be found in Bomback’s story. Rejecting levity doesn’t automatically make a story more respectable. Fans of the brilliant podcast Serial would attest to the fact that a lot of its success could be attributed to host Sarah Koenig’s playful narration.
Jacob’s trial inspires domestic detectives and crime podcasts; it also attracts him a significant fan following – one of the most curious clichés that follows alleged killers. Through all of it, Martell plays Jacob with a certain nonchalance and a slightly cavalier bravado – as if the gravity of what is happening to him hasn’t fully sunk in. In moments such as this, the show begins to resemble Lynne Ramsay’s psychological thriller We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which a mother realises that she might not be as attached to her son as has been deemed appropriate by society.
Defending Jacob is a clever little thriller, featuring a handful of fine performances – especially Evans, Martell and Michelle Dockery, who plays Andy’s wife. It boasts the slickness that Apple originals have come to be defined by, but sadly, the service still hasn’t found that one piece of programming that it can flash as its calling card.