On the day after Thanksgiving 2012, 17-year-old Jordan Davis was shot and killed outside of a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida. The shooter was Michael Dunn, a middle-aged white man who had gotten into an argument with Davis and his friends, all of them black and all of them teenagers. The fight was about the volume of the music the kids were playing in their car. The subsequent murder trial continued the intense national scrutiny around the state’s “stand-your-ground” law, just months after the killing of Trayvon Martin.
3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets is a chronicle of the case, made with remarkable access both to the courtroom itself and to the lives of those involved. Director Marc Silver devotes a significant amount of the film to Davis’s parents, Ron Davis and Lucia McBath, presenting a fuller profile of this young man who was killed by someone who had only known him for an instant. The witness testimony is equally intense, Davis’s friends who were with him that day facing the often aggressive questions of Dunn’s attorney.
Under stand-your-ground, at least as the defense sees it, one only has to prove that the shooter felt threatened to acquit. The threat does not need to be credible, only its perception in the mind of the man with the gun. As such, the slain teenager himself becomes a subject of concern. Character witnesses are no longer simply context, but the actual content of the legal debate. Can the defense prove that Dunn felt himself to be in serious danger?
The very definition of the word victim is thus sent spinning and the resulting chaos is the troubling core of the film. For the defense to win the case they have to effectively cast Dunn as the victim, and in the process remove Davis’s claim to the same word. This is a bewildering logical process, one that is even more unsettling because it has been implicitly endorsed by the Florida legislature with stand-your-ground.
Silver uses stylistic cues to underline this fogginess, primarily with a score by composer Todd Boekelheide that evokes the jazzy ambiguities of film noir. Silver also punctuates the trial and interview footage with images that share a great deal with the aerial urban iconography of local TV news. The mood is not unlike that of Nightcrawler, and at times it’s easy to confuse Jacksonville for Los Angeles. This hazy landscape gets an extra chill from audio recordings of Dunn’s calls from prison to his girlfriend, in which he talks himself through his own victimhood and channels racist soundbites for comfort. He rants about “MTV culture” and rap music, turning youths into thugs. He demands to know where their fathers are. “They’re the racist ones,” he pleads.
His disembodied words are paired with shady, quiet images of Jacksonville shot from a distance. The prison, the Atlantic Ocean, and the tranquil highways of northeast Florida late at night listen passively to Dunn’s words, a rhetorical loop of panic and confusion. Silver’s use of empty landscape isolates the prisoner, underlining the potential futility with which he is convincing himself of his own innocence. After all, it is more important that he sway the jury.
And those jurors are confused, though not by the facts of the case. Rather, they don’t entirely understand the stand-your-ground law and they ask for clarification as to their task from the judge on multiple occasions. This is given added weight, in part, by the remarkable clarity of the courtroom sequences. Silver and his editors, Emiliano Battista and Gideon Gold, distill the trial into a remarkably easy to follow series of testimonies and speeches. There’s no way that the facts are confounding anyone, and so the jury’s foundering becomes another proof of the unnecessary ambiguities brought about by the stand-your-ground legislation.
If confusion is the theme, however, institutional racism is the subtext of 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets. That would be the case no matter how Silver directed it, frankly. His approach, therefore, can be seen as quite narrow. Confining himself to the trial and the families of Davis and Dunn, he tells a personal story rather than a societal one. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, of course. The only issue is that Silver runs out of emotional beats about halfway through his telling, a problem that broadening the scope would solve. Images of Davis’s parents at a protest outside the courthouse are potent, but the director foregoes their potential to expand the breadth his message. The result is a conclusion as fractured as the trial itself. 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets is very effective at provoking the right kind of anger, but it doesn’t quite know where to direct it.
This review was originally published on June 18, 2015.