‘Trial by Fire’ a pow­er­ful feel-bad movie

The News-Times - - DIVERSIONS - By Mick LaSalle [email protected]­i­cle.com

Trial by Fire Rated: R for lan­guage through­out, some vi­o­lence, dis­turb­ing im­ages, sex­ual ma­te­rial and brief nu­dity. Run­ning time: 127 min­utes. out of 4

“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 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 so 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 feel­bad 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.

Road­side At­trac­tions

Jack O’Con­nell in a scene from “Trial by Fire.”

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