When I first read the synopsis for this film, one of the thoughts I had was this film had a much more grim subject matter than most, dealing with a convicted prisoner on death row. I felt it had the potential to be thought-provoking and interesting, with a lot to say. Adding in Laura Dern, who is a gifted actress, made me intrigued to see the movie. After viewing it, I feel that this movie is compelling, has incredibly emotional performances and has a message that warrants being heard, that makes even me take a step back and reconsider previously held ideas.
“Trial by Fire” directed by Edward Zwick, is the true life story of a convicted death row inmate, Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell) who strikes up an unusual friendship with mother of two, Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern). Uneducated and poor, Cameron Todd Willingham is convicted of the arson-related triple homicide of his three daughters in 1992. Everyone believes he is guilty, except for his wife, Stacy (Emily Meade) but even she abandons him after he is convicted. His guard on death row, Daniels (Chris Coy) names him a baby killer and is merciless in attempting to break him into prison life. Then he meets Elizabeth, who begins fighting for his freedom against staggering odds, locating discrepancies in testimony and finding scientific evidence that was suppressed during his trial. While her efforts eventually fail, it leaves the question of whether Texas executed an innocent man.
This is not the type of movie that is always easy to watch but it is compelling, nonetheless. And it is compelling for the very reasons it is so hard to view, because the director and the performances of the actor’s pull you into the story of Todd Willingham, engaging you with him as a character and present you will overwhelming evidence of his innocence. It is heartbreaking and emotional but enacted so brilliantly, making the audience question why this man was put on death row and how valid is the death penalty for a suitable justice when it could so easily be an innocent man or woman put to death, with no one ever questioning the truth. That message is the heart of the film, whether justice was served but it is done through the medium of Todd’s story, going forward from the moment of the fire, showing us the investigation with biased officers, granting us Todd’s perspective both at the moment and in prison, as he goes over those moments with his children. The architecture of the movie in presenting these details is overwhelmingly heartbreaking but intelligent in its design.
It is not just the writing that is compelling. The work in presenting Todd pulls you into his perspective, makes the viewer empathize with his shock over the loss of his children, his heartbreak. He is not a perfect man. When you first meet him, he is abusive toward his wife, angry, violent with a tendency to drink. But you still find yourself engaging with him as he journeys through a profound transformation in prison. He begins listening, talking to those around him, reading and becoming a man who is philosophical and thoughtful, writing letters with kindness and heart. It is impossible in the end to watch his story with equanimity.
Beyond Todd’s character, the character of Elizabeth Gilbert is irresistible as well. Her fiery passion, her desire to save Todd makes you root for her efforts. Despite her failure, it is her effort that makes her so interesting to watch. She truly cares about justice and about Todd, believes in his innocence and her belief makes the audience believe. I think only the most hardened viewer would not find this story heartbreaking.
The acting is incredible. Jack O’Connell’s performance as Todd is emotional and intense. He imbues the character with both palpable anger and sorrow but also with kindness and gentleness as he changes during his twelve years on death row, bonding with his fellow prisoners and even the guard that once bullied him. Laura Dern plays her character with astounding compassion, her desire to save Todd informed by the loss of her children’s father, her ex-husband. She is fiery, passionate, and the perfect choice, her performance the last scene in the film, leaving a loving tribute to Todd at his daughter’s graves. Chris Coy who plays the guard Daniels is also among the beautiful portrayals as we see a transformation in his character from a bully who hates Todd to a soul regretful in the end for Todd’s death. Emily Meade as Stacy is haunting and dark. Even smaller roles are worth watching.
If there is any small room for improvement, there is a lack of showing just how Elizabeth is compelled to begin corresponding with Todd Willingham. The film shows her meeting a woman who she assists with a ride and the woman’s request but never quite dots the lines in why she takes on the favor. We are left with the impression that she does so out of her failure to save her ex-husband from his death but the most we are given is that she is a person who ends up trying to save others.
This film will most likely not have the widest audience and that is a shame. It asks some thoughtful questions of the audience. It asks us what is the life of a man worth and whether there is a better way. Once upon a time, I believed in the death penalty but after watching this film, I question that long ago thought. I see that in many ways we treat our animals better than humans, allowing our pets to die in peace and dignity but leaving prisoners to die in pain. Even lethal injection is painful. I truly feel that we need to find a better way, than leaving men to die who might very well be innocent if they are given more time. If you like films that make you think, emotionally beautiful movies with compelling characters, I highly recommend this. It might not reach many people but it should. I truly hope that this film is able to given the opportunity to share its story with as many people as possible.
Rating: 5 out of 5 letters.