Trial by Fire opens with a queasy, disturbing image. A man runs out of a flaming house, screaming that his babies are trapped inside. He yells for the neighbor across the street to call 911, which she does. Something is off about his behavior, though. He goes to his car and moves it away from the house. He's not exactly calm, but he isn't as panicked as he should be, either.
That man is Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O'Connell), a poor, uneducated Texan with a passion for heavy metal music. He is soon arrested for starting the fire that took the lives of his three young children. The first half of the movie, which is based on a true story, tracks Willingham through his arrest and subsequent trial. He proclaims his innocence. Oddly, so does his wife Stacy (Emily Meade), despite her testimony that he beats her. At the trial's end, he is given the death sentence.
The second half jumps ahead several years, shifting focus slightly. Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) is a divorced mother of two who develops an interest in Willingham's case. She visits him on death row, where they form an unlikely connection. He's tried to become a better man – a fact she senses. After looking into some of the specifics of the case, Gilbert comes to believe that his conviction may have been based on faulty science and unreliable expert testimony. He might really be innocent after all. She races to get proof in front of the governor before Willingham's time runs out.
The “before/after” approach taken by Trial by Fire could have easily misfired. Because we don't follow Willingham during the years when he changes, the possibility was there to feel as though the movie is just manipulating him. A riveting performance from Jack O'Connell (Unbroken) makes us believe we're still watching the same person. Early scenes find O'Connell skillfully avoiding the usual “redneck” cliches to play a three-dimensional guy whose flaws are quite visible. He maintains Willingham's rough edges later on, while still convincingly suggesting that a bit of maturity has been found behind bars.
Trial by Fire wisely takes the time to develop the bond between Willingham and Gilbert. There's no romance – just a lonely prisoner needing someone to see past what he's been accused of, and a woman willing to show empathy to a fellow human being who gets it from no one else. O'Connell and the always-excellent Laura Dern create a relationship that provides an otherwise dark story with a little heart.
The true standout performance, however, comes from Emily Meade (HBO's The Deuce), who is a powerhouse as Stacy. The character has a lot of resentment toward her husband and isn't afraid to show it, yet she also knows there's a limit to how awful he can be. This is one of those times when an actor does genuine sit-up-and-take-notice work.
Trial by Fire packs in a lot of material: what happened, how Willingham was convicted, how he gets to know Gilbert, how Gilbert tries to prove his innocence, and so on. Because the movie tries to do so much in two hours, it's occasionally prone to being on the heavy-handed side. Certain scenes -- particularly one in which Gilbert gets flirty with a former trial witness, hoping to get him to admit that he lied under oath – seem forced or unrealistic.
The strength of the performances help to override that flaw, as does the inherently dramatic nature of this true-life incident. Directed by Edward Zwick, Trial by Fire builds suspense as the clock ticks towards Willingham's execution and credibly depicts an unlikely friendship forming. A theme about whether capital punishment is overused gives you a lot to think about afterward.
These elements make Trial by Fire well worth seeing for those with an interest in social issue movies.
out of four
Trial by Fire is rated R for language throughout, some violence, disturbing images, sexual material and brief nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.