Trial by Fire

I started watching this thinking it was going to be a run-of-the-mill melodrama (at times it was), but I was pleasantly surprised by how interesting it was. It helps that the fact-based film had two outstanding performances, from Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) and Laura Dern (who I only got to see in two scenes in the horrible Cold Pursuit earlier this year).

The story is based on a New Yorker article that came out 10 years ago, about a man named Cameron Todd Willingham (O’Connell), who was sentenced to death in Texas, for the murder of his three daughters. His house had caught fire and he made it out. His kids didn’t, and neighbors noticed he was just standing around his front yard as the place burned down.

Elizabeth Gilbert (Dern) is a writer in Houston who befriends him through the mail. As she researches the case, she starts pushing for a retrial or release because his defense attorney did a shoddy job. It made me think of Cape Fear, since the lawyer in that movie did something similar. I also thought of Cape Fear (the remake) when we saw all those bizarre tattoos on Robert De Niro. Willingham doesn’t help his case when he has ink on his arm, one of which is a pentagram. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and that’s probably something defense attorneys everywhere wish jurors would keep in mind. Especially if their clients have neck tattoos, or symbols associated with satanism.

It was great that this movie doesn’t hide the fact that O’Connell was a jerk. It reminded me of how they did the same thing in Dead Man Walking. It’s always refreshing when a film doesn’t try so hard to push an agenda that they cloud the story. We see O’Connell blasting heavy metal, smacking his wife around, staying out all night, cheating, and drinking. He also doesn’t seem too interested in working, so the wife has to bring home the bacon.

Director Edward Zwick (Glory) did a good job with the courtroom scenes, which are often hard to pull off. When characters get angry and yell, a judge bangs his gavel and tries to restore order…it all felt so authentic. It didn’t feel like over-the-top acting.

Another example of a scene that feels more realistic than most films, is when Elizabeth meets up with the defense attorney (who looks to be retired). The exchange they have on his farm is interesting, with just a touch of hostility. It felt like a conversation real people would have, not actors in a screenplay that scream catch phrases at each other like “You can’t handle the truth!”

And watching the wife (Emily Meade, who is also terrific playing trashy) plead from the stand that her husband wouldn’t hurt the children, is surprisingly moving.

A few things were hard to buy. One of them, is that this guy was even innocent. Just because his pen pal thinks so, didn’t change my mind. The only compelling thing was that a cellmate (Blake Lewis), supposedly lied for a lighter sentence. The problem with that part of the story is, we later see him being paid a visit by Elizabeth and it’s implied that he also got paid a hefty sum for testifying against him. That makes absolutely no sense. He was already in jail, and giving him enough money for a new truck, is something that would’ve come back to bite them in the butt (it caused me to research this story even more, and it does seem like perhaps he was guilty). Yet none of that makes the movie less enjoyable.

You certainly don’t feel sympathetic toward this guy as you did for Andy Dufresne in Shawshank. But you’ll never lose interest in the story as you’re watching it. Probably best not to read up on the case (or read other reviews, as most critics have given away the outcome).

It’ll be playing this weekend at a handful of theatres, including the ArcLight and Angelika Film Center.

3 stars out of 5.


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