There are a few plot loopholes in Double Jeopardy that, if scrutinized, would unhinge the entire story and seriously truncate the movie's running time. Two of the more gaping ones involve narrow escapes allowed between a profoundly wronged wife and her devious, scheming husband. In the heat of their conflict, these two otherwise driven characters choose, once each, to knuckle under when they have the advantage. This being essentially a pulpy thriller, one expects some defiance of logic, but the real surprise here is that the suspension of disbelief reveals themes that transcend the genre. What could have been a tawdry revenge romp instead becomes a slick yet astute illumination of the soul.
That soul belongs to Elizabeth "Libby" Parsons (Ashley Judd), a happy, young mother and wife whose idyllic Pacific Northwest life becomes a nightmare, quite literally, overnight. All is well for Libby at first, as she falls into reveries about sailing with her 5-year-old son, Matty (Benjamin Weir). She clearly adores the moppet but is also busy tending to her brash, ambitious husband, Nick (Bruce Greenwood). A high-rolling businessman and pretentious art collector, Nick still finds time to host a fund raiser for the local preschool, where the couple's nanny, Angela Green (Annabeth Gish), teaches and serves as head administrator. Nick delights Libby by buying her the sailboat she has had her eye on, and in a flash, the two are riding the waves like two L.L. Beaners in a Bacardi commercial.
After a night of carnal gratification below deck, however, Libby awakens to discover a bloodbath for which she is the only possible suspect. Nick is missing and the Coast Guard arrives while she's clutching one of the galley's knives. Given that she's also the sole beneficiary of Nick's $2 million life-insurance policy, it's not long before she is formally charged with her husband's murder, denied bail and convicted. Facing years in prison and opposed to Matty becoming a ward of the state, or worse ("I barely survived my parents' house," she exclaims. "I'm not going to put him there!"), she convinces Angie to adopt the boy, then begins her hard time.
Incarceration proves miserable for Libby, but edifying as well, as Margaret Skolowski (Roma Maffia) and Evelyn Lake (Davenia McFadden) introduce themselves as her new best friends. Both women are in for killing their husbands, and, once Angie stops bringing Matty to visit, their support turns out to be invaluable. With a shrewd call to the preschool, Libby traces her friend and her son to San Francisco, where they are living with Nick, who, it turns out, faked his own death. Libby's pleas for justice go unheeded, but Margaret, a disbarred lawyer herself, offers a splendid bit of advice: Do the time, play by the rules, and then murder Nick upon parole. Citing the Fifth Amendment, she explains that nobody can be tried twice for the same offense (thus, Double Jeopardy). Since Libby has already been found guilty of murder, she's free to kill the man. "Kinda makes you feel warm and tingly all over, doesn't it?" Margaret purrs. "It's sheer hate driving you on!" Evelyn later adds.
At this point, the movie could degenerate into a simple trajectory of vengeance, but director Bruce Beresford and screenwriters David Weisberg and Douglas S. Cook raise the ante. After six years of focused physical training, Libby is released into a halfway house run by parole officer Travis Lehman (Tommy Lee Jones). A broken man, Travis keeps a firm grip on his recuperating charges, making no bones about returning backsliders to prison. He finds his ultimate challenge in Libby, not only because every fiber of her being is dedicated to escaping and reclaiming her son, but also because he can empathize; he hasn't seen his daughter since a terrible alcohol-related accident he caused years before.
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Once set up, Double Jeopardy plays as a somewhat unique hybrid, a solo Thelma & Louise crossed with a gender-reversed The Fugitive with a dry twist of Fletch. Libby runs, Travis chases, and chaos ensues. Fortunately, the chaos is only in the eye of the beholder, as the script -- excepting those few aforementioned stretches of plausibility -- neatly links Whidbey Island, Washington, to San Francisco to Evergreen, Colorado, to New Orleans. Nick has changed his name and life more than once, and Libby must call upon all resources available to her to track him down. Fronted by a male protagonist, this is an oft-told tale, but with a woman on the lam, we have a new set of variables. Libby is tough and sly and not afraid to smash up cars or pistol-whip Travis, but one senses no enjoyment or victory in these actions. Doubtless some viewers will grope for a stronger vicarious kick, but Libby's quest is less about revenge than retribution.
Double Jeopardy is littered with human quirks and clever details that keep it engrossing even when the chase feels rote. Libby eludes the advances of a randy young fellow by cheerfully dropping the hint that she was convicted of murdering her husband. At a charity bachelor's auction, Nick (under identity #3) "jokes" that he has no redeeming moral virtue. Wry and comforting observations are exchanged in prison, and in all of the settings (Vancouver for most, New Orleans for the last act), Beresford and his longtime cinematographer, Peter James, keep the screen glowing. Watching this movie -- from its vast expanses of British Columbia to the sultry claustrophobia of New Orleans -- is a bit like taking a minivacation.
A veteran like Beresford (Paradise Road, Driving Miss Daisy) makes this material look easy, but he never cheapens it (beyond its inherent cheapness, anyway), coaxing fine performances from all involved. While Jones could do this stock role in his sleep (and send us snoozing as well), he imbues his sarcastic amateur gumshoe with ample vulnerability. Greenwood, in his thankless weasel role, gives us a corrupt yet human villain. (After two films with Atom Egoyan, Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, he's no stranger to emotional complexity.) The movie's many supporting roles are well-filled, and special notice goes to Maffia and McFadden for their vital contribution as Libby's mentors.
Ultimately, Judd is most responsible for bringing depth to this piece and affording it the revisionist sparkle that it bears. With a calm, determined glint in her heavy-lidded eye, she fleshes out Libby far beyond the functional frame given her by the writers. Cars splash into the Georgia Strait, computers get hacked in the nick of time, opulent balls are crashed, and Judd carries it all with grace and skill. But the real spectacle is an internal one, as Libby strides a heroine's path of transformation. Stripped of everything she knows and loves, she descends into the underworld of prison, battles for her freedom, even gets locked up with Death, then emerges, empowered from within, to find her son and rebuild her life. Double Jeopardy's premise may be lurid and a little forced, but Judd's investment penetrates the pulp to reveal a mother's valiant heart.