Jack O’Connell in “Trial by Fire.” MUST CREDIT: Steve Dietl, Roadside AttractionsJack O’Connell in “Trial by Fire.” MUST CREDIT: Steve Dietl, Roadside Attractions
Photo: Steve Dietl
Photo: Steve Dietl
“Trial by Fire” is a hard movie to talk about, because its entire point — its reason for being — is contained in its final minutes. To really talk about the movie is to talk about that ending. Yet despite the fact that every advance article and interview about the film has given that ending away, it still doesn’t feel right to do so in a review.
So, this is what we’re going to do instead. A little compromise: I’m not going to give away anything overtly. However, if you read the following with any attention at all, you’ll be able to figure out how this movie ends. So, if not knowing is important to you, you might want to stop reading after the next paragraph.
But before you go, some advice — stay and read the rest of this. “Trial by Fire” is the rare case of a movie that’s actually better if you know how it ends. I watched it without knowing, and it made the experience worse. To believe you’re getting one movie when you’re getting another just sets up expectations that the film cannot match, simply because its intentions are in the complete opposite direction.
“Trial by Fire” tells the story of Todd Willingham, who was convicted of murdering his three daughters by burning them to death in an arson fire. In fact, he didn’t do it, but he sure made it easy for people to think the worst of him. Young. Dumb. Unemployed. And a drunk with some history of domestic abuse.
So the murder conviction here is a foregone conclusion. His public defender is a joke, whose only idea is that Todd should plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. He won’t — what innocent person would? — and so, in short order, Todd is sentenced to death and placed on death row. Oh, and did we mention? The movie takes place in Texas.
Based on the above description, you might easily believe that “Trial by Fire” is Willingham’s story, in the way that true stories are usually about their protagonists. Such movies say, “This is someone that something interesting happened to. And here are the details.” But that’s not what’s going on here. Director Ed Zwick is not telling Todd’s story because it’s unique or unusual, but rather for the opposite reason, that what happens to Todd turns out not to be unusual at all and most definitely isn’t unique.
So “Trial by Fire” is the farthest thing from a human-interest story. Rather, it’s an impassioned polemic that arrives on screen at a charged political moment. It could have been made 10 years ago, except that its message could not possibly have had the same resonance: America isn’t working. And even those systems put into place to avert disaster? Well, those are strained or failing.
All that’s fine, but just saying that much is easy. “Trial by Fire” goes further. It dares to identify the source of our problems in a political mentality and a cultural attitude. Case in point, the police arson investigators that arrive on the scene and decide — on the basis of absolutely nothing — that Todd lit a fire in his daughters’ room by arranging gasoline in the shape of a pentagram.
A pentagram. In other words, that Todd was supposedly a devil worshipper. This hypothesis is not just lunacy, but idiocy, and a particularly dangerous kind of idiocy that assumes it knows the precise nature of evil and starts seeing it when it is not there. This is the intellectual laziness of people who are sure they have the moral scheme all worked out. They’re too busy congratulating themselves on their virtue to waste time on boring stuff like evidence.
Such behavior in a pair of investigators would be bad enough, but as we see in “Trial by Fire,” this smug vacuity goes way up the line, all the way to the governor, Rick (“oops”) Perry.
Are you getting mad yet?
That’s the intention. “Trial by Fire” is not a feel-good movie. It’s a feel-bad movie. Yet somehow, if you go in expecting that, you might enjoy it in a weird way. Jack O’Connell is good in it. And so is Laura Dern, as a writer who takes an interest in the case. But Dern’s excellence is a given: If she ever just phones it in, that will be worth a headline.
“Trial by Fire”
Rated: R for language throughout, some violence, disturbing images, sexual material and brief nudity
Length: 127 minutes
★★★★ Excellent ★★★ Good ★★ Fair ★ Poor
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