While it’s reasonably convincing in arguing that a miscarriage of justice took place when Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for killing his three little children just before Christmas in 1993, Trial By Fire differs very little from the standard-issue anti-death-penalty films and TV shows that have come out of Hollywood over the last several decades. The format, dramatic arc and ultimate point — to try to build an emotional groundswell against capital punishment — are extremely familiar, and while there is solid acting from Jack O’Connell as a bottom-feeder Texan doomed to a lifetime of getting the short end of the stick, the notes the film hits play straight into the hands of the already convinced and are unlikely to change anyone’s mind about the issue. Edward Zwick’s film more resembles high-minded TV shows of yore than something that will pack the multiplexes.
The opening is certainly emotionally dismaying: A roaring fire rampages through a small house in Corsicana, Texas. A crazed young man runs through the building in a panic, but it’s either escape at once or perish. The guy makes his way out, but his three kids are charred to death in the blaze, which is immediately blamed on him.
A post-credits flashback to days earlier shows why everyone has no problem pointing the finger directly at Willingham. He’s a poster boy for poor white trash, a loser, a congenital liar, a heavily tattooed druggie with an insolent attitude and wild temper who’s a stay-at-home dad because he can’t or won’t hold a job. He’s the kind of guy anyone would steer clear of if they don’t feel like getting into a fight.
The mom, Stacy Willingham (Emily Meade), is cut from the same cloth, an education-challenged punk and screamer who carries the burden that her father murdered her mother. It would be hard to find a couple with more cards stacked against them. The only evident goodness in them is that they both claim they can’t live without their kids.
Right after the kids’ funeral, the law clamps down on Willingham. He’s booked for arson and murder, and his trial is a pathetic joke: No one will stand up for him, least of all his attorney, who lazily mounts no defense. A half-hour into the film, Willingham is on death row.
The script by Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious) jumps the action forward seven years to the beginning of Willingham’s inadvertent relationship with playwright and prison pen-pal Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), and it’s here that matters become simply too familiar and predictable for words. Gilbert is a bleeding-heart liberal of the first rank, and as Dern seems to have a natural tendency toward open-hearted sympathy for other people, the double-whammy of sweetness, kindness and understanding from character and actress just proves too much.
We’re also told that there’s been no forward progress in Willingham’s appeal process and that Willingham has never presented his side of the story in all these years, but there’s no explanation as to why not. Especially later, when the young man’s date with death draws near, the mystery of why his case wasn’t reassessed and investigated much earlier remains aggravatingly unclear.
Some of the details of life in the Texas death house are mildly interesting, but it’s a very sterile environment that offers little opportunity for talking with others and certainly not for escape. In both of these regards, cinematic maximum security is a lot less boisterous and dramatically vital place to be than it was in all the Hollywood big house films of the 1930s like 20,000 Years in Sing Sing or Each Dawn I Die or even the powerful and brutal British film that first brought O’Connell to world attention in 2013, Starred Up.
O’Connell agreeably reveals incremental changes in his character’s attitudes over the arc of his performance, but the film’s mid-section occupies dully middle-brow territory dominated by Gilbert’s occasionally wounded but yawningly predictable do-gooder instincts and little progress in re-setting his legal case. Nor is it clear why his execution is put off for so long if the case was so conclusive in the first place.
Suddenly, however, the accused has just one appeal left, so everyone gets busy and Zwick starts pushing all the predictable buttons. Serious doubts about the way the original trial was conducted arise for the first time, Emily comes to see him after 12 years and an appeal is made to Gov. Rick Perry. Willingham persists in saying stuff like, “I lied to everybody,” and “Anybody who can’t save his own kids doesn’t deserve to live,” and tells the unbearably earnest Gilbert that he’s tired of her “fake hope.” As a portrait of a relationship between a condemned man and a woman who tries to help, this stands very faintly in the shadow of something like Dead Man Walking.
At the last minute, he changes his tune, insisting upon his innocence for the first time and claiming he was wrongly prosecuted. But it too little way too late, as he knows, whereupon we’re treated to the modern spectacle of death by lethal injection.
The filmmaking here is plain, prosaic and earnest. For some, just getting worked up all over again about capital punishment will be enough, but without flair or fresh insights into its chosen subject, this just seems like spinning more wheels about on oft-discussed subject.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Production: Rubber Duckie Productions, Flashpoint Films, The Bedford Falls Company
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade, Chris Coy, Jeff Perry, McKinley Belcher III, David Wilson Barnes, Darren Pettie, Blake Scott Lewis, Jade Pettyjohn, Noah Lomax, Carlos Gomez, Anthony Reynolds
Director: Edward Zwick
Screenwriter: Geoffrey Fletcher, based on the New Yorker article by David Grann
Producers: Edward Zwick, Allyn Stewart, Kip Nelson, Alex Soros
Executive producers: Kathryn Dean, Marshall Herskovitz
Director of photography: John Guleserian
Production designer: Clay A. Griffith
Costume designer: Marina Draghici
Editor: Steven Rosenblum
Music: Henry Jackman
Casting: Victoria Thomas