It’s very timely that a film such as Trial By Fire should be released, as it begs the question, how much control should the government have over our bodies and in this case especially, our lives. Trial By Fire discusses the polarizing topic of the death penalty through a true story of an innocent man on Death Row.
Cameron Todd Willingham (played excellently in the film by Jack O’Connell) is a husband and father of three in Corsicana, Texas. His family is poor and only his wife, Stacy (Emily Meade), has a job. He doesn’t have an excellent track record with local law enforcement, and then something terrible happens. His house catches on fire while his wife’s at work and everyone is asleep. He can’t save his children. At first, his neighbors and the townspeople were very supportive of the Willingham’s in their time of tragedy, but it doesn’t take long before that attitude changes.
“…on trial for murder and arson which he maintains from the very beginning he didn’t do.”
Suddenly, Todd, as he likes to be called, was on trial for murder and arson which he maintains from the very beginning he didn’t do. His defense attorney is of no real assistance to him, and it appears that the District Attorney got witnesses to falsify their testimony. Todd ends up on death row. Stacy never comes to visit him. Through an interesting turn of luck, Houston playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) starts corresponding with Todd while he is on Death Row. She then goes to visit him and believes that he is innocent. She and a new lawyer race against the clock to find new evidence to further corroborate Todd’s innocence, at the sacrifice of time with her family and everyday life.
Trial By Fire is an incredibly sad, harrowing movie. Things go badly for almost everyone involved and then some. Jack O’Connell portrays the fear and grief of a wrongfully accused prisoner in a way that seems as realistic as I would be familiar with personally. You really feel his turmoil over the combination of heading towards an unjust end and missing his family. Emily Meade, best known for playing Lori on The Deuce, is great as Stacy, a frustrating character that you can’t help but sympathize with. Of course, then there is Laura Dern as Elizabeth Gilbert.
Dern’s performance is informed by her passion for the subject matter. She feels very strongly about exonerating innocent Death Row inmates, just as Gilbert did. Seeing her as Gilbert try her damnedest to save Todd from death is a heartbreaking yet inspiring process. It’s also incredibly fascinating to witness the bond that a metalhead alcoholic and an upper-middle-class playwright form through empathy and compassion.
“…incredibly fascinating to witness the bond that a metalhead alcoholic and an upper-middle-class playwright form through empathy and compassion.”
The fact that Trial By Fire is based on a true story makes it all the sadder. I was crying at several points throughout the course of the film because there are so many times where things come close to getting resolved and then being cut short. The ending is especially devastating, so be warned. I absolutely think that the film is worth seeing if only to observe how corrupt the criminal justice system can be, and how badly it needs to be reformed, especially in states like Texas.
The performances are inspired. Laura Dern is excellent as always. It was also my personal introduction to Jack O’Connell, who is phenomenal as Cameron Todd Willingham. My only complaint is that there are some not so wonderful CGI fire effects in places, but it doesn’t take anything away from the good parts of the film. It’s a solid indictment against the Death Penalty and all the barbarism associated, which makes it a worthwhile watch.
Trial By Fire (2019) Written by Geoffrey Fletcher. Based on a New Yorker article by David Grann. Starring Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade, Jade Pettyjohn, Jeff Perry, Chris Coy, Joshua Mikel, Jason Douglas, Carlos Gòmez, William Tokarsky, Wayne Pére
7 out of 10 stars.