A bad film with a great premise, Double jeopardy could have taken its audience deep into noir territory with a few alterations in character and motive. Ashley Judd plays rich mom Libby Parsons, who is married to an arrogant financier (Bruce Greenwood). Waking in the middle of the night aboard their recently acquired yacht Libby finds herself covered in blood and her husband missing. Convicted of his murder, she’s sent to a surprisingly mild prison where she works out a lot and meets new people, eventually learning by chance that her late husband Nick is actually alive, living with the woman she thought was her best friend. Years pass and Libby is released on parole to a halfway house, under the supervision of former law professor turned PO Travis Lehman (Tommy Lee Jones)– a man with his own tragic past and a relatively low key drinking problem. Having learned in prison that the principle of double jeopardy forecloses the possibility of being tried for the same crime twice, Libby violates her parole to collect her son and get payback.
Two aspects of the film are particularly noteworthy. First, Double Jeopardy is an early example of the Internet Thriller, featuring suspenseful search engine queries which require Libby to get other people to use their computers to answer vital questions. Second, a couple of fairly over the top action sequences pad out the pursuit of her son and treacherous husband. But the most perplexing vagary of the film is its reluctance to delve deeply into the dark side. It’s almost as if the Production Code was still in effect, insisting that the characters embody uncomplicated moral stances rather than embracing the dissolution and ambivalence of the noir mode at its best. If Travis were crooked, for example, willing to exploit Libby for his own gratification, the dangers she runs would have been compounded and the story made more thrilling. Wounded by the death of a daughter roughly Libby’s age, a sleazier version of Travis could have been manipulated by her in a vaguely incestuous manner, summoning some of the Oedipal energies that animate film noir at its most uncompromising. In fact, Double Jeopardy is far too cop friendly, confident in the good intentions of the institutions that have helped to destroy Libby’s idyllic, affluent life. Had her prison experience been harsher, she might have become harder and less appealing, perhaps even repelling her son at their reuinion. In the final struggle between Nick and Libby, we get the retribution we’ve been led to expect but it’s justified as an act of self-defense rather than as a cathartic crime of vengeance. For all the blood, action, and fleeting nudity in Double Jeopardy, it’s a conservative story unwilling to relinquish an exhausted Code-era template of moral clarity.