Trial By Fire
Starring Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade,
Director Edward Zwick has a befuddling filmography. He has directed large scale projects like “The Last Samurai” and “Blood Diamond.” Classics like “Legends of the Fall” and “Glory.” He has also helmed misfires like “Love & Other Drugs” and the “Jack Reacher” sequel. Zwick’s latest, “Trial By Fire,” is a glorified television quality movie if I ever saw one. This is unfortunate because the events portrayed here are powerful and in better hands, this could have been the type of movie that debuts at a major film festival, and be in the running for awards consideration. “Trial By Fire” is penned by the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Precious,” but Zwick makes little effort to elevate it beyond simply connecting the dots. This film is substandard in every way, relying on the story and the performances of O’Connell (“Unbroken,” “Tulip Fever”) and Dern.
Two days before Christmas 1991 in Corsicana, Texas, 24-year-old Cameron Todd Willingham (O’Connell) bolts from the front door of a burning house screaming, “my babies are burning”. Known in this small community as a wife beater and troublemaker, his arms covered in satanic tattoos, it wasn’t long before the local law enforcement charged the belligerent father with the children’s murder, arresting him immediately after their funeral. He faced a trial where the evidence against him was substantial, just not verified. Willingham is convicted based on his character more so than the evidence. Sentenced to death, he is transported to death row in prison. As his execution date grows closer he begins to correspond with Elizabeth Gilbert (Dern). After a series of friendly pen letters between the two Gilbert begins looking through his file and rechecking facts of his case, ultimately finding proof that exonerates him. “Fire doesn’t destroy evidence, it creates it,” said one expert witness after looking over the evidence of the trial.
The subject matter is so powerful, somehow the poor cinematography, bad musical score, terrible writing and even the visual effects which are few, can’t suppress the convictions Trail By Fire has on display.
“Trial By Fire” gets off to a bad start with the most unrealistic fire visual effects, you have seen on screen in more than a decade. The low-quality filmmaking demonstrated here reduces the audience’s willingness to invest in the story. Yet, the subject matter is so powerful somehow, the poor cinematography, bad musical score, terrible writing, and even the visual effects, which are few, can’t suppress the convictions “Trial By Fire” has on display. Fact-checking the story after the credits roll, won’t increase your understanding of what the filmmaker was trying to achieve It’s painful to see such a powerful story regarding the death penalty botched in this way. Knowing how effective it could have been in the right hands. Also missed here was the conversation about how the character of the accused influences the judicial process.
Laura Dern (“JT Leroy”, “Star Wars”) doesn’t appear until midway through the film, but when we get to her point of view the film improves, slightly. It’s difficult to understand just what type of movie “Trial By Fire” is, a trial film, a prison film, a film about someone wrongly accused. It never presents itself fully as any of these, leaving us with a fractured movie. It seems to me, the point of view should have stayed with Elizabeth Gilbert, using flashbacks to tell the story of Willingham instead of this very bland chronological order we have, that plays out by the numbers. The unconvincing wigs and makeup used to age the actors, and the overacting, especially from Emily Meade (“Money Monster”, “Nerve”), handicap the film’s power and reach.
The story is far more powerful than the cinematic elements that fail this movie on nearly every front.