Trial by Fire


The despair of a father or the guilt of a murderer?

(2018) True Crime Drama (Roadside Attractions/LD Entertainment) Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade, Jeff Perry, Jade Pettyjohn, Chris Coy, Joshua Mikel, Jason Douglas, Carlos Gómez, William Tokarsky, Wayne Pėre, Darren Pettie, Blair Bomar, Rhoda Griffis, Katie McClellan, Noah Lomax, Catherine Carlen, Michael H. Cole, Carlos Aviles, Elle Graham, McKinley Belcher III, Bryan Adrian, Mary Rachel Quinn. Directed by Edward Zwick

 

The death penalty remains a controversial subject, igniting passionate responses on both sides. Some consider it cruel and inhumane; others see it as righteous justice. Some say it is a deterrent to criminals, others point out that there’s no evidence that suggests that’s true. Some say that it at least keeps those who have committed heinous crime out of commission for good; others point to the possibilities that those who are innocent might be put to death wrongfully.

A young girl in the small Texas town of Corsicana was playing in her yard when she saw smoke billowing out of the house across the street. A shirtless man came out of the house, coughing and screaming that his kids were still in the house. The little girl’s mommy called 911 but it was all for naught – the three little girls inside the house were gone. Their father, Cameron Todd Willingham (O’Connell) would eventually be charged with their murder.

On paper, it seems like a slam dunk. Willingham was a notorious local troublemaker with a violent streak who had on several occasions physically abused his wife Stacy (Meade) who was away from the house when the fire occurred. Arson investigators for the county pronounced that it was absolutely a case of arson. Willingham was given a public defender who didn’t see much point in putting up any kind of defense. He never challenged the testimony of witnesses who changed their stories on the stand, nor checked on the veracity of a convicted criminal who testified that Willingham had confessed the crime to him in jail. Willingham was quickly convicted and sentenced to death, despite his protestations of innocence and his wife’s insistence that he would never hurt his own kids.

Willingham was put on Death Row where he was taunted as a baby killer and abused by guards and fellow inmates alike. His mandatory appeals are going nowhere and he can’t afford decent representation. Then, along comes playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (Dern), a kindhearted do-gooder who reluctantly contacts him through a prison outreach program. Far from the thuggish brute she expected, he seems charming, gentlemanly and kind but absolutely unwavering in his cries that he’s an innocent man about to be executed for something he didn’t do.

Gilbert becomes drawn in to his story and starts to do research into his case and what she finds is shocking. The investigation was conducted in a shoddy and haphazard fashion with no other option other than Willingham ever considered for the crime. When she engages world famous arson investigator Dr. Hurst (Perry) who states unequivocally that that the initial investigation was botched and the culprit was likely a faulty space heater, Gilbert tries to find someone in authority to listen.

This case actually happened and despite overwhelming evidence that he didn’t do what he was accused of doing, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004, more than twelve years after his daughters died in that terrible blaze. Zwick, an Oscar nominated director for Glory, puts together a searing indictment of our current justice system in which the law has become a commodity; only the very wealthy can afford good representation and that means often those who are poor are without any sort of recourse to get an adequate defense. It is the reason programs like The Innocence Project exist.

O’Connell, a fine actor who has been sort of just on the cusp of something brilliant, delivers it here with an absolutely stellar turn as Willingham. While I don’t think Zwick did O’Connell any favors by inserting imaginary one-sided conversations with his deceased oldest daughter, we get a sense of his despair, his outrage and yes his anger. The role likely won’t win him very many awards but might be the stepping stone to roles that will.

Zwick enlisted Alex Belcher to compose the music and he delivers with a haunting mood-inducing score that is absolutely unforgettable. Unfortunately, Zwick doesn’t give this film the kind of passion that he managed in Glory; I’ve read other critics describe his direction as workman-like and that is unfortunately right on the money. This is the kind of movie that should leave you with your blood boiling but oddly, it doesn’t and considering how tailor made it is to eliciting that kind of reaction, it’s almost criminal in and of itself.

Still, this is an important movie on the subject of our legal system, especially implying that then-Texas governor Rick Perry refused to even read Hurst’s report that should have exonerated Willingham, preferring that the execution go on as scheduled to preserve the reputation of the State as kick-ass against crime. This is one that got by them and quite frankly, some of those whose shameful behavior sent an innocent man to jail and execution should have had criminal charges filed against them.

REASONS TO SEE: O’Connell does a sterling job. The score is absolutely haunting. An important film on the issue of capital punishment.
REASONS TO AVOID: Should leave you with your blood boiling but it doesn’t.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, brief nudity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a New Yorker article written by David Grann which opined that Texas had knowingly and willfully executed an innocent man.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Man Walking
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Violent Separation

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