Guilt is Complicated in The Death Row Drama 'Trial By Fire'

Laura Dern and Jack O’Connell act their asses off in this powerful true story.

Trial By Fire

True stories don’t get much bleaker than that of Cameron Todd Willingham. Originally related to the public in a 2009 New Yorker article by David Grann, Willingham’s case–he was sent to death row after a fire in 1999 killed his three young daughters–has become a significant point of reference for discussions surrounding judicial reform. Now it’s getting the big screen treatment.

Wrongful conviction, for-profit prison systems, pseudoscientific investigation, and the death penalty are heavy, complicated topics for one film to tackle, but historical epic director Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Glory) does so by forgoing a grand scale and honing in on one man’s incendiary rage and pain. When we’re introduced to Willingham (Jack O’Connell), his whole life has just gone up in flames, and he appears to be the only one to blame. Two small-town arson investigators pick through the burned out shell of his home in Corsicana, Texas, attributing each scald and scar to the man they know as a jobless, abusive drinker with a record. Even the staunchest supporters of judicial reform are handed seeds of doubt about his innocence by a film that, like the case itself, presumes guilt from the jump and then works backward, slowly reframing audience opinions within new contexts.

If this sounds like more of a task than a film, that’s because at times it is. True crime fans and social justice advocates will be familiar with the sequence of events, a narrative version of the one that’s been described in a near-endless stream of podcasts and docuseries in recent years: a quickly decided guilty verdict, prison mistreatment, character re-assessment, amateur investigation, appeals process, and so on. If the broader strokes of the film sometimes feel like work, then the reward comes in the form of textured, memorable performances from O’Connell and Laura Dern, who shows up in the film’s second act as Willingham’s pen pal and eventual advocate, playwright Elizabeth Gilbert.

O’Connell, perhaps best known for his lead role in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, brings a condemned man to life with gut-wrenching fervor. Trapped in a cage, stripped of his humanity, and left to face his plentiful mistakes, he vacillates between the frothing rage of a wounded dog (“They oughta kill me good! They better start digging my grave now!”) and the profound grief of a human being who’s been given a long time to think about how little hope he has. We’ve seen death row before, in films like The Green Mile and Monster’s Ball, but few if any films have ever dared to center on a prisoner as irascible and off-putting as Willingham while still managing to eventually invoke our full sympathy. Trial By Fire takes an even more warts-and-all approach to Willingham’s story than Grann’s article did, adding more details based on his letter correspondence with Gilbert, and the result is a potent drama carried by a powerhouse lead performance.

Despite mostly unadorned direction by Zwick, Trial By Fire still takes one risky choice after another, among them an over two-hour running time, a score by adventure and superhero film composer Henry Jackman, and the swift introduction of a third-act twist (based in fact) that’s almost too depressing to bear. Most serve their purpose, but none pay off as clearly and profoundly as the decision to cast O’Connell in the lead role. Zwick could have easily reached out to a massive celebrity, and it seems like a role that would have any number of familiar Hollywood actors chomping at the bit, but O’Connell’s relative unfamiliarity lends the already dynamic performance an added layer of authenticity.

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At one point, after being nicknamed “Babykiller” and thrown into solitary confinement, Willingham slams his head into a wall until dark blood seeps down from his hair. At another, he sees his estranged wife (The Deuce’s Emily Meade) for the first time in years and, abandoning the carefully cultivated calm he’s achieved after years of soul-searching, starts spitting dirty insults like a jealous teenager. O’Connell elevates each of these moments from melodrama to genuine, heartache-inspiring truth. Meade and Dern each bring a different, almost opposed energy to their characters, but both are formidable scene partners for O’Connell’s energetic performance.

Movies about any death sentence, whether set on death row or in a hospital, are bound to contain some level of earnestness. You will cry, and you will feel bad, and someone on the screen will likely tell you to live to the fullest while you can. It’s easy to shy away from this kind of emotional vulnerability or label it somehow inauthentic, but over its run-time, Trial By Fire is convincing in its assertion that vulnerability and the pursuit of truth are not only warranted but essential. Like it or not, this story has to break your heart, because stolen lives are heartbreaking. Trial by Fire is by no means perfect, but it pulls off something rare and vital: it does justice to a story of injustice.

Trial by Fire is currently screening at the San Francisco Film Festival and will be released in limited theaters by Roadside Attractions on May 17th.

San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer, TV lover, and cheese plate enthusiast.