We are well past the halfway point of Edward Zwick’s conventional but effective Death Row legal thriller “Trial by Fire” when the efforts to exonerate a man facing execution take us to the home of one Gerald Hurst, a world-renowned chemist and fire investigator.
The Highland Park-born Jeff Perry, a Steppenwolf Theatre Company legend and a familiar character actor on TV (“Nash Bridges,” “Scandal”) and in the movies (“The Grifters,” “The Human Stain”), delivers unique and offbeat and absolutely brilliant work as the eccentric genius Hurst. I can’t remember the last time I was so blown away by a performance that takes up maybe five minutes of screen time.
If the entirety of “Trial by Fire” was as scintillating and special as that one scene, we’d be talking about an Oscar contender. But while this based-on-fact, politically charged procedural features a number of standout performances and is on balance a solid, debate-inducing piece of filmmaking, it traffics in largely familiar territory and at times delivers its message with a pounding hammer when a lighter touch might have been more effective.
“Trial by Fire” opens in the working-class town of Corsicana, Texas, in 1991. The British actor Jack O’Connell (“Unbroken”) disappears into the role of Cameron Todd Willingham, a poor, uneducated, hard-drinking, tattoo-spangled heavy metal fan well known in local circles as a troublemaker who’s had more than a few brushes with the law, including a number of domestic abuse complaints from his wife Stacy (Emily Meade).
Early one morning, a little girl across the street is playing on her front yard when she sees black clouds of smoke billowing from the Willingham house. A barefoot, shirtless Todd comes flying out the front door, screaming that his children are inside. He grabs a crowbar from his vehicle and smashes a window — but that only serves to increase the intensity of the inferno.
By the time firefighters arrive on the scene, three little girls — a toddler and infant twins — are gone.
Local investigators have no doubt this was arson — and given Todd’s criminal past and the volatile domestic history in that home, authorities don’t even consider any scenario other than this worthless, evil, possibly Satan-worshipping piece of garbage killed his own children.
Even Todd’s defense attorney is convinced of Todd’s guilt, and does little more than say, “No questions, your honor,” as one prosecution witness after another implicates Todd.
Little wonder it takes the jury about a lunch break’s worth of time to hand down a guilty verdict, followed by the judge immediately imposing the death penalty.
For a long stretch, “Trial by Fire” becomes a by-the-numbers prison drama, with stock characters such as the sadistic guard (Chris Coy) who enjoys taunting and beating inmates and the street-smart, convicted killer (McKinley Belcher III) who (when the moment calls for it) has some surprisingly insightful views on the justice system in America.
Thanks to O’Connell’s impressively authentic performance, we believe Todd’s gradual transformation over a 12-year-period from an ignorant, self-destructive, violent hothead to a model prisoner who continues to maintain his innocence and explores every avenue of appeal — even as flashback sequences have us doubting his innocence.
About halfway through the film, the focus shifts from Todd’s point of view to that of Laura Dern’s Elizabeth Gilbert, a writer, lifelong do-gooder and divorced mother of two.
In rapid fashion, Elizabeth learns about Todd’s case, studies the files, is convinced the trial was a sham, becomes pen pals and then prison-visit friends with Todd, and makes it her mission to get Todd a new trial as Todd is running out of time before he’s next on the state of Texas execution assembly line.
This takes us into “Erin Brokovich” territory, as Elizabeth (who is not a lawyer) takes on the legal system and knocks on doors and raises a ruckus as she becomes consumed with saving Todd.
Zwick’s stylistic choices are hit and miss. A scene in which Elizabeth describes a typical morning at home to Todd, and Todd imagines himself in her kitchen, watching the flurry of family activity, works beautifully.
But when Todd carries on imaginary conversations with his oldest daughter, and we see her in the cell with him, at the age she would have been had she not died, it’s not so much touching as it is disturbing and strange.
The dynamic between Dern and O’Connell is powerful and palpable, even though their bond develops solely through written correspondence and prison conversations in which they’re talking on the telephone and separated by thick glass.
Then there’s that masterpiece of a micro-performance by Jeff Perry, in that single scene. That alone is worth the price of admission.