Trial by Fire (2019; Edward Zwick)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, May 17, at the Tower Theatre in Sacramento.
“Bold But Mercurial”
Chunks of a pretty good prison movie occasionally bob to the surface of this bleeding-heart biopic about Cameron Todd Willingham. Unfortunately, they eventually drown under waves of blandness and cliche.
’71 and Unbroken star Jack O’Connell plays Willingham, a Texas man accused of burning his three daughters alive in 1991. Willingham’s trial was the sort of shit show that gets the hearts of every wannabe Serial producer racing. Bible-thumping prosecution, apathetic defense, overzealous cops, untrustworthy witnesses, dubious experts who peddle voodoo science, the whole nine yards. Still, the jury convicted Willingham of first-degree murder, and the judge sent him to death row. That’s Texas death row, the real deal.
The first half of Trial by Fire follows Willingham from the morning of the fire to his installment on death row. It’s easily the best section of the film, bracing and briskly paced, with the buzzsaw of justice cutting through everything in its path. O’Connell is outstanding in these early scenes, bold but mercurial, and his chilly intensity carries Trial by Fire through the opening hour.
“A Screeching Halt”
However, the film comes to a screeching halt when Laura Dern arrives (ironic in that the opposite is usually the case). Dern plays Elizabeth Gilbert, a single mother who befriended Willingham and supported his appeals. In the early scenes, Trial by Fire views the action from a distance, seeding some doubt about Willingham’s innocence.
But as soon as Dern starts sending O’Connell those dewy-eyed, earth mother gazes, all doubt goes out the window. We are now watching an inspirational procedural about a heroic woman trying to rescue a gentle soul from horrific injustice.
As a result, the second half of Trial by Fire plods through the obligatory story beats. For example, Gilbert’s daughter pops in every fifteen minutes to remind her mother that Willingham is a convicted murderer. Dern gets one great sequence, as Gilbert breaks down a reluctant informant with her sweetness, like some soccer mom Columbo. For the most part, though, shifting the narrative to Gilbert backfires, and undermines everything that came before.
Zwick directs with his usual vacuous competence, so we get nothing approaching the complexity of Dead Man Walking or the audacity of A Twelve-Year Night. A shorter runtime and tighter focus would help a little. Some sincere outrage would help a lot.
Read more of Daniel’s reviews at Dare Daniel and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to Daniel on the Dare Daniel podcast.