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Meaningful Suffering

Trail by Fire

by George Wolf

Another death row drama with a clear agenda, probing one questionable conviction to build a righteously angry condemnation of our entire justice system?

Yes, Trail by Fire is certainly that, but the familiarity of its gripping narrative actually serves to strengthen the argument. How many dubious death sentences will it take to shake our comfortable faith in fair trials?

In 1992, Texan Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell) was sent to death row for setting the house fire that killed his three young children.

After years in prison, concerned citizen Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) took an interest in the case. Along with lawyers from the Innocence Project, Gilbert worked to poke enough holes in the conviction to get Willingham a new trial.

Adapted from a New Yorker magazine article and Willingham’s own letters from prison, the committed script from Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious) suffers only in the rushed introduction of Gilbert’s character. But though any organic motivation for Liz’s commitment may be thin, it’s overcome by the sterling performances from the two leads.

O’Connell – a vastly underrated talent- is heartbreakingly effective as Willingham, a man happy to have a regular visitor but wary of the hope Liz brings with her.

His journey from slacker defiance to jailhouse wisdom is grounded in the authenticity of McConnell’s touching performance. This man was no altar boy, but our sympathy for him is well-earned.

The chemistry with Dern is evident from the start. While these plexiglass encounters are a necessary staple of this genre, Dern and McConnell make them simmer with an intensity that is often riveting.

Kudos, too, to Emily Meade as Willingham’s wife Stacy. The Willingham marriage was challenging, to say the least, and Meade (Nerve, Boardwalk Empire, The Deuce) is good enough to make the conflicted relationship recall the bare emotions of Manchester by the Sea.

Director Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond, Pawn Sacrifice) takes some narrative risks that ultimately pay off, keeping the pace vital through some effective visual storytelling that feeds the sense of a ticking clock.

Zwick also builds layers of indelible support characters (Willingham’s first jail cell neighbor, the lead prison guard, an independent arson investigator) that leave engaging marks, often at junctures critical to avoiding an overly rote structure.

Crushing in its familiarity, gut wrenching in its specifics, Trial by Fire is a tough but worthy reminder of the illusion of fairness.