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Compelling true-life crime stories don’t necessarily make for compelling cinema. Case in point: Tom Anton‘s period courtroom drama about Toni Jo Henry, who in 1942 became the only woman to be executed in Louisiana. Despite a formidable cast including Oscar nominee John Hawkes and an admirable fidelity to the historical facts, the sluggishly paced The Pardon comes to feel like jury duty.
Jaime King (Sin City) plays the lead role of the beautiful young woman — she was only 24 when she was put to death in the electric chair — who suffered an abusive childhood (seen in flashbacks) and became a prostitute working in a Shreveport, Louisiana bordello. It’s there that she meets her dashingly handsome husband nicknamed “Cowboy” (Jason Lewis of Sex and the City), who helps her kick her drug addiction cold turkey. But their happiness is short-lived when he’s arrested in Texas and given a life sentence for the murder of a police officer years earlier.
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Desperate to raise funds for his appeal, she makes the mistake of teaming up with Cowboy’s criminal friend Arkie (Hawkes), with the plan of committing a bank robbery. Hitchhiking together, they rob and kill a Houston car dealer who gives them a lift, although who actually pulled the trigger has never been firmly established.
The resulting trials — three in all, here condensed into two — find her fighting for her life with the aid of a pair of court-appointed attorneys (Tim Guinee, Leigh Whannell) whose previous experience was solely in tax law. With her accomplice testifying against her, she’s sentenced to death, experiencing a religious conversion beforehand under the guidance of a sympathetic priest (T.J. Thyne).
Concentrating largely on the trials, the screenplay by Anton and Sandi Russell features dialogue largely taken from the actual court transcripts. The approach certainly adds an air of authenticity but also an inevitable dryness to the drawn-out proceedings, with the faith-based message hammered home none-too-subtly in the final act.
In her meatiest role to date, King is reasonably effective and, judging from the haunting photo shown before the end credits, bears a strong resemblance to the real Toni Jo. And Hawkes is riveting as usual, especially in the courtroom scene in which his sleazy criminal character coolly parries the defense attorney’s relentless cross-examination.
The film makes the most of its Shreveport locations, evocatively conveying the late 1930s-early 1940s setting despite its low budget.
But for all its careful attention to detail, The Pardon, which by dint of its subject matter recalls such other true-crime films as I Want to Live! and Bonnie and Clyde, never comes to dramatic life.
Production: The Pardon Group
Cast: Jaime King, John Hawkes, T.J. Thyne, Tim Guinee, Leigh Whannell, Jason Lewis, M.C. Gainey
Director: Tom Anton
Screenwriters: Tom Anton, Sandi Russell
Producers: Tom Anton, Blair Daily, Jacqueline George, Sandi Russell
Executive producer: Jim Davis
Director of photography: Matthew Irving
Production designer: Anne Stuhler
Editor: Blair Daily
Costume designer: Ernesto Martinez
Composer: Ashley Irwin
Casting: Lisa Mae Fincannon
Rated PG-13, 114 min.
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