“Trial by Fire” is a well acted but more or less conventional drama treading familiar territory.
Strong performances from Laura Dern and Jack O’Connell highlight what audiences get here. Their work when paired with the capable storytelling capabilities of director Edward Zwick do much to lift the material.
But by now film audiences are familiar with the “unlikely bond between condemned prisoner and compassionate stranger” trope. While its message is clear enough, the vehicle for delivering that message just isn’t extraordinary.
What’s it about?
“Trial by Fire” recounts the friendship between Texas death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell, “Unbroken“) and Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi“), a divorced mother who Willingham exchanges letters with in the years before his execution in 2004.
The film moves chronologically, starting with the fatal fire that claims the lives of Willingham’s three children in 1991. His arrest, trial, sentencing, and early days on death row make up the balance of the first act.
The film’s last two acts show how Gilbert enters into Willingham’s life. She’s unsure at first, and the skepticism of her family and peers doesn’t help.
However, she slowly finds purpose as she uncovers a glaring number of inconsistencies in Willingham’s case that put together led to his conviction. She resolves to do what she feels is right and help with Willingham’s appeal, but in Texas, the film posits, such battles are almost insurmountable.
As time grows short and Willingham’s hope for a reprieve grows thin, Gilbert finds herself in the fight of her life, one the real-life Elizabeth Gilbert continues to wage to the present day.
Compassion and connection
That heroism takes many different forms in his films. Whether on the battlefield, in the family sphere, or in solitude while combating one’s own demons, he dramatizes acts of courage and the journey to redemption with almost peerless skill.
“Trial by Fire” should have a place among Zwick’s more noted work in this regard, as well. Though it’s far smaller in scale than his earlier epics, he delivers just as much emotional impact in his staging of this film’s most compelling emotional beats.
Zwick benefits greatly from his talented principals in that effort. Dern is effortlessly authentic as the compassionate, idealistic Gilbert. When faced with gross injustice, she stands up to fight the good fight when no one around her wants her to.
But she’s no devout crusader, no saccharine do-gooder. She’s simply kind to a fault, without a real focus for that kindness until she meets Willingham. Dern’s understated and charming turn here keeps that innate compassion relatable and sympathetic.
She also shares strong chemistry with O’Connell, who in his own right capably projects Willingham’s evolution while in prison. Their characters never meet outside of prison — they’re always separated by glass.
But the connection born of compassion is palpable, and prompts you to care about what happens next.
All that said, “Trial by Fire” is limited by its predictable scripting and well-intentioned but all-too-evident agenda.
There’s nothing subtle, nothing measured about this film’s indictment of the system in Texas that put Willingham to death more than a decade ago. It calls out contemporaneous corruption in the State Attorney’s office and ongoing unwillingness to acknowledge error on the part of the state in the present.
As a result of that focus on the injustice at the heart of the situation, the film neglects certain subplots it opens up along the way. The single-minded pursuit of justice does leave collateral damage in its wake, and while the film does tease at examining that truth, it never really pays it off.
And then there’s the familiarity of this very story in film. Yes, it may sound cynical, but we’ve seen this drama unfold before in other, better films. Just how much audiences will be able to enjoy this film without being reminded of those others will depend on the individual viewer.
Does all that mean the film isn’t worth seeing? Hardly. It’s certainly worth your time, especially if the story is unfamiliar to you and you’re a fan of the talent involved.
Trial by Fire
Starring Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade. Directed by Edward Zwick.
Running time: 127 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, some violence, disturbing images, sexual material and brief nudity.