Released in 1995 and directed by Tim Robbins, Dead Man Walking earned Susan Sarandon an Oscar for her portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean, a spiritual adviser to inmates on death row. Like I Want to Live, Dead Man Walking is based on a true story with artistic license.
Opening tomorrow, Trial by Fire falls into similar “death row drama” and may be more haunting than the previous two Oscar winning movies. Itopens with simplicity. In one sustained shot, we see a girl playing in her front yard while a house in the background bursts into flames. A man runs out the smoky front door, runs to his car, then runs to a window screaming a child’s name. The fire department arrives. The fire claimed the children of Todd (Jack O’Connell) and Stacy Willingham (Emily Mead), a couple with domestic problems. Based on circumstantial evidence and his nonchalant behavior, Todd is sentenced to death row. Labeled a “baby killer,” Todd is placed on the lowest rung of inmate hierarchy.
During his final years, Todd develops a relationship with a prison guard (played by local actor Todd Allen Durkin) and develops a pen pal relationship with Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), a recent widow raising two children. With her legal experience, Elizabeth investigates Todd’s case and sees a reasonable doubt.
Director Edward Zwick has created his own unique “death row” drama. The dark elements of the story naturally permeate the story, but the sunny cinematography provides an interesting contrast. Clocking in slightly over two hours, this film meanders, yet provides many “little moments” of character development. In particular, the relationship between Todd and his security guard grows and blossoms like the relationship between Dr. Frankenstein and his monster.
Trial by Fire is a good movie, but a serious movie filled with darkness of the human soul. It is a definite contrast to most films on the big screen. If you need a “feel good” movie, go see Superpower Dogs 3D at the IMAX at the Museum of Discovery & Science in Ft. Lauderdale.