“Fire doesn’t destroy evidence,” one of the arson experts testifies in court. “Fire creates evidence.” That it does. But what if the evidence it creates is misinterpreted by the people who are entrusted to understand it? What if the experts are clouded by confirmation biases, hampered by outdated investigative methods, and complicit in a judicial system that disproportionally targets the poor? And what if — as a direct result of those other what ifs — an innocent man was executed for murdering his own children? In Texas, which executes more than five times as many people as any other state, those aren’t exactly hypothetical questions.
A clumsy prison drama that’s baked into a compelling argument against the death penalty, Ed Zwick’s “Trial by Fire” dramatizes the tragic story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was wrongly convicted of burning his house down with his three young daughters inside on December 23, 1991. It was just two days before Christmas, a quirk of the schedule that made the accusations seem all the more sinister — a throwaway detail made it that much easier for the prosecution to paint Willingham as an evil soul whose pentagram tattoo indicated an allegiance to the devil.
Not that it is, was, or ever has been hard to convict a man like that. From his face to his police file, the twenty-something Willingham looked like a composite sketch of every white guy on Death Row. He had a mullet, but not a job (or, it would seem, a high school diploma). He had as many DUIs as he did children. He hit his wife, and she hit him back. Looking at Willingham from the jury box, you’d sooner expect to see the guy on an episode of “Cops” than at the center of a movie by the director of “Glory.”
English actor Jack O’Connell (“Starred Up,” “Unbroken”), so good at mining humanity from horror shows of masculinity, does everything in his power to ensure that we make all the worst assumptions about his character. From the start of this dark story (when Willingham calmly watches from a safe distance while his babies are burned alive), to the bitter end (when he still maintains his innocence, and screams that his ex-wife is a bitch), O’Connell never cheats our sympathies. The rest of the film doesn’t either. Geoffrey S. Fletcher’s functional script allows Willingham to mature during his 12 years on Death Row, and to repent for the way that he treated the women in his life, but it narrowly avoids the fatal mistake of making us feel like Willingham should be exonerated because he’s nice, and not because he’s innocent.
Adapted with great passion (but less than zero panache) from David Grann’s extraordinary 2009 “New Yorker” article of the same name, “Trial by Fire” works in spite of its stylelessness. Zwick has always been a happily middlebrow director who prefers to step out of the way and let the sweep of his stories do the heavy lifting, but this is the first of his films that feels like an assemblage of non-choices. There’s value in recognizing that Willingham’s story isn’t so different from hundreds of others that have been told by our criminal justice system, but it almost feels as though Zwick uses that as an excuse to make things as generic as possible.
The early scenes that introduce us to Willingham and his wife (played to flaky, salt-of-the-earth perfection by “The Deuce” star Emily Meade) are bland and scattershot, as indifferent to the emotional aftermath of the fire as the state of Texas is toward the man they decide to blame for starting it. Zwick might want to keep us focused on the facts, but he often accomplishes that by depriving us of any deeper insight. Without a clear aesthetic to illustrate the absurdity of Willingham’s arrest, or to convey the horrifying powerlessness of his imprisonment, the first half of “Trial by Fire” just sort of happens. It’s a veritable parade of prison-movie tropes (the helpful black cellmates the abusive white guard, the solitary confinement dream sequences), but Zwick’s refusal to go full “Shawshank” results in a “terrible soup / such small portions” situation — the film can’t even commit to its clichés.
But then, after the movie skips forward seven years around its halfway point, we and Willingham are graced by a ray of light: Laura Dern. Elizabeth Gilbert is a bored, middle-aged writer and mother of two who’s so compassionate that her dying ex-husband often refers to her as a saint. Or maybe it’s just that she likes to fix the things she can, because it spares her from having to dwell on the things that she can’t (Dern’s pained half-smile does a wonderful job of obscuring the difference). One day, after helping a stranded motorist like the good samaritan that she is, Gilbert is told of a letter-writing program for death row inmates. Struck by the sincerity of Willingham’s writing, Gilbert is soon visiting her pen pal in prison on a regular basis.
“Trial by Fire” is completely reignited by the scenes between Dern and O’Connell, who form a compelling bond through a thick sheet of plexiglass. More than just an acting masterclass, the probing, delicate conversations between their characters build towards a harrowing tap dance between hope and surrender. It’s tempting to think that the film should have just started here, with Dern and O’Connell locked in a lopsided war against a broken state; we could have filled in the rest by simply reading their faces.
It takes so little for Gilbert to recognize a miscarriage of justice, and even less to find irrefutable evidence that Willingham was put on the chopping block for the sake of good politics (someone observes that executions double during election years). Rising from the ashes of a tired prison story, “Trial by Fire” erupts into a harrowing condemnation of the criminal justice system as Willingham’s execution races closer, and the evidence of his innocence grows more irrefutable. The twists folded into the film’s last act are stranger than fiction and profoundly unfair, but also all too easy to believe in a true story that always defaults to injustice. What Zwick lacks in artistry, he makes up for in anger, and “Trial by Fire” burns with a righteous fury that spreads right off the screen. It may not be a great film — at certain times, it may not even be a good one — but it makes a more convincing argument about Cameron Todd Willingham than the state of Texas ever did.
“Trial by Fire” premiered at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.