Trial by Fire (** 1/2)

The similarly titled New Yorker article penned by journalist David Grann serves as the basis for the drama based on true events, Trial by Fire. The subject at the story’s center is Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was found guilty in 1992 of intentionally setting a house fire that resulted in the death of his three children in Corsicana, Texas. Being that Willingham was an economically and educationally challenged man on the lower rungs of society to begin with, it wasn’t hard to ascertain that the odds were stacked against him long before his case went to trial. Using the tried and true method of accusing Willingham of devil worship and using his prior criminal record against him, the prosecutors successfully won the case without giving much credence to evidence that pointed toward an unfortunate accident and nothing else.

Enter into the picture Elizabeth Gilbert, a divorced mother of two, and a published author. In the film’s version of events a random coincidence, Gilbert chances upon a stranger with car trouble who suggests she visit a death row inmate, serves as the catalyst for her friendship and eventual championing of Willingham’s case to be reopened. This forms the basis of the more satisfying second half of the movie.

Geoffrey Fletcher, the screenwriter of Precious, penned the adaptation of Grann’s article and, unfortunately, a lot of it comes across as rote and by the numbers. Too many scenes that we’ve already seen in films of this type are repeated ad infinitum throughout the proceedings. The good intentions are there, but it never manages to catch fire, no pun intended, in a way that feels dramatically satisfying even under the sure hand of critically acclaimed director Edward Zwick.

The film’s brightest spot is in its casting. Jack O’ Connell, the star of the 2014 film, Unbroken, brings a level of depth and compassion to his portrayal of Willingham. We feel the pain and sense of loss this man endured. Better yet is the performance by Laura Dern in the female lead as Willingham’s crusader, Elizabeth Gilbert. Then again, it’s hard to expect anything less than perfection from Dern as she has proved time and again. If only the film were as compelling and moving as its lead performances then maybe Trial by Fire could rise above the mundane. Unfortunately, it never quite transcends its similarities to other and much better films dealing with the same subject.

Jack O’Connell and Laura Dern in Trial by Fire

This film will be released on May 17th!

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