Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12 reconfigures Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men for contemporary Russia, adopting the basic premise of the legendary source material while thoroughly grounding it in his homeland’s current condition. Tasked with deciding the fate of a young Chechen boy accused of murdering his adoptive father, a former Russian military officer, 12 jurors recess to the gymnasium of a school opposite the courthouse, which is undergoing renovations that the gym itself—saddled with an ugly, exposed ventilation pipe on its ceiling—could also use. The state is in literal disrepair and, Mikhalkov’s film says, so too are its citizens, as evidenced by the jurors’ selfish desire to come to a quick guilty verdict so they might get on with their everyday lives. The wrench in those plans comes courtesy of a gentleman who, having once been figuratively saved by the careful consideration of others, thinks deliberation is first required before they condemn a young man to life behind bars.
At 159 minutes, 12 has the time to flesh out most of its players, though not always plausibly; a vacillating TV host, driven to retching in the bathroom as a result of a preposterous, pointless hypothetical situation, comes off as a creaky fictional construct no matter what angle he’s viewed from. Regardless of the extended runtime, however, Mikhalkov’s unfussy stewardship keeps the pace brisk and the verbal back-and-forths sharp. And if the script often feels like a series of monologues, at least those speeches are consistently gripping, highlighted by a transfixing tale of abuse and regret from the jury’s intimidating racist (Sergey Garmash).
While the director shrewdly evokes the country’s folklore and storytelling tradition through the jurors’ various personal narratives, his attempts at more overt symbolism prove a mixed bag. A fluttering bird that takes up residence in the gymnasium and is accompanied by one swooping, soaring camera shot through the room, is at once too on-the-nose and twee an emblem of hope and freedom. Conversely, the leaking, carelessly constructed ceiling pipe, despite having its emblematic value explained through some needless climactic exposition, resonantly stands in for the physical and ethical decay of both the Russian individual and nation, where, according to 12, easy-way-out self-interest too often takes precedence over sacrifice for the greater good.