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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The Green Mile


The Green Mile

Michael Clarke Duncan shows Tom Hanks which direction he'll have to grow in to be as tall as he.

(1999) Drama (Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse, Bonnie Hunt, James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, Graham Greene, Gary Sinese, Doug Hutchison, Sam Rockwell, Barry Pepper, Jeffrey DeMunn, Patricia Clarkson, Harry Dean Stanton, William Sadler. Directed by Frank Darabont

 

I know of at least three authentic American geniuses in the arts named Steve: Stephen Sondheim, who doesn’t figure into this; Steven Spielberg; and Stephen King.

Spielberg started out as a director of entertainments that while not always taken seriously by the critical cognoscenti nonetheless enjoyed extreme popularity. Later, he would direct projects that met with critical acclaim, Oscars and the respect of his peers. He is now rightly considered one of the greatest directors of all time.

Stephen King appears to be paralleling Spielberg’s course. At the start of his career, his work was dismissed as mere horror novels, but they sold in record numbers. Then starting in the late 1990s, he began to produce works of greater depth and heart. Witness The Green Mile, which has been brought to the screen by Frank Darabont, who also directed one of the best filmed adaptations of King’s work, The Shawshank Redemption.

Like Shawshank, The Green Mile is set in a prison in the ’30s at the start of the film. In this case, it’s in cellblock E of the Cold Mountain Penitentiary in Louisiana (moved from Mississippi in the book) circa 1935. Paul Edgecombe (Hanks) supervises the guards on the cellblock, which is better known as Death Row. He has a pretty good team of guards working for him, most notably Brutus “Brutal” Howell (Morse), a surprisingly gentle-natured bear of a man. Their job is to keep calm the men who are waiting to die because, as Edgecombe tells Percy Wetmore (Hutchison), a sadistic guard with connections to the governor, “they can snap at anytime and hurt themselves, or somebody else.”

Into this volatile mix comes John Coffey (Duncan), a huge, hulking, simple man who dwarfs even Brutal. He has been convicted of the rape and particularly brutal murder of two young girls. He seems gentle and frightened, but as his lawyer (an uncredited Gary Sinese) explains, a dog may seem gentle and loving and then unexpectedly turn on you.

Coffey joins a group of men waiting to be executed, including Eduart Delacroix (Jeter), a timid prisoner with a very precocious pet; Wild Bill Wharton (Rockwell), who is understatedly described by Warden Hal Moores (Cromwell) as “a problem child”; and Mr. Jingles, a mischievous mouse.

Coffey, you see, has a gift – a unique and miraculous gift. He shoulders the burden of this gift in a world of suspicion, prejudice and brutality. The Green Mile looks at that world without flinching or blinking, the kind of a world that produces a Wild Bill, a John Coffey and a Paul Edgecombe, who is a decent man doing a horrible job.

Parts of The Green Mile are hideous (a botched execution attempt) and sometimes beautiful (unexplainable cures, fireflies in the moonlight). It also has more urine than you’ll ever see in five movies (courtesy a urinary tract infection for Edgecombe), so those who are squeamish about bodily fluids be warned.

 The acting here is uniformly good, with Hanks at the top of his game and Morse, Jeter and Cromwell – some of the finest character actors in Hollywood then and now – all delivering fine performances. Duncan and Rockwell, both at the very beginnings of their careers, were both terrific, Duncan receiving an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his performance. That was one of four Oscar nominations the film received and while it didn’t win any of them, certainly it received plenty of love from the Academy who are not known for extending much of it to Stephen King and his movie adaptations.

Despite being three hours long, The Green Mile never drags for a moment. That’s because this really isn’t a film about prisons and crime; the human spirit is really the subject of the picture – the nature of good and evil, death and dignity. There are some emotionally gut-wrenching moments. Da Queen had tears streaming down her face for about the last half hour. She claims that The Green Mile is off the Hankie scale completely, and advises that you just have a whole box of tissues available when you sit down and watch the movie. Preferably one of those industrial strength Costco sizes. Trust me, you’re gonna need it.

Sometimes, a movie comes along that you know from the first few moments is going to be a great motion picture experience, one that touches you in deep places, perhaps even comforts you. The Green Mile is just such a movie. It was my pick for the best film of 1999 and remains to this day more than a decade later a modern classic, one which bears repeated viewings. It certainly is a staple in my family and I’m not alone in that assessment. If you haven’t seen it, you are truly missing out.

WHY RENT THIS: A modern classic. A touching treatise on the human spirit. Excellent performances from Hanks, Morse, Duncan, Rockwell, Cromwell and Jeter.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Maybe you hate Stephen King on general principles.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language can be pretty foul, there are some sexually oriented scenes as well as some fairly disturbing images of murder and execution. There are also lots of scenes involving urine, so be warned.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Stephen King visited the set during filming and asked to be strapped into the electric chair. He was somewhat unnerved by the experience and immediately asked to be released.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: While the original DVD release (2000) didn’t have much room for features, the 2-disc special edition (2006) did and included Duncan’s original screen test and a make-up test with Hanks (he was originally set to play Edgecomb as an old man but the make-up was unconvincing and so Dabbs Greer was cast in the role in his final screen appearance) as well as a new nearly two hour feature on the making of the film. The Blu-Ray (2009) has all of these as well as a 34-page Digibook with background on the film, actor bios and an essay on Darabont’s three King adaptations to date.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $286.8M on a $60M production budget; the movie was pretty much a Blockbuster (and is the highest-grossing Stephen King adaptation to date).

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance