Nearly 28 years ago, on Dec. 23, 1991, three little girls died in a fire in Corsicana, TX. In short order, the authorities declared the blaze an arson and identified the children’s father, Cameron Todd Willingham, a local ne’er-do-well as the killer. Fifteen years later, the state of Texas executed Willingham by lethal injection. Those are the bare bones of the case that serves as the basis for the Edward Zwick’s (Blood Diamond, Defiance) new film, Trial By Fire, a tense true-crime drama that argues that an injustice has been done and an innocent man executed. Jack O’Connell as Willingham and Laura Dern, as Elizabeth Gilbert, a playwright who worked on behalf of Willingham’s exoneration, lend their considerable talents to a riveting tale of justice denied.
English actor O’Connell (Starred Up, Unbroken) is particularly effect as the ill-fated, Oklahoma-born Willingham. There is no vanity to his performance as someone only too easy to accuse of committing a heinous crime. As husband to wife Stacy (Emily Meade), he is abusive. He is an unemployed rage-aholic well-known to local authorities long before the tragedy. But he also appears to have been a doting father with no actual motive for killing his daughters. Stacy believes he is innocent. No one else does, not even Peter Horton (Darren Pettie), his defense attorney—that is until Gilbert, first Willingham’s prison pen pal and later his advocate, gets involved.
Zwick and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, who adapts a 2009 David Grann New Yorker article, meticulously lay out the facts of the case, from Willingham’s home life before the fire through Gilbert’s thorough investigation and her vain attempts to get Governor Rick Perry or anyone in the Texas justice system with the power to intercede to rectify an injustice. Dern is terrific in her depiction of a woman whose own domestic life suffers in her drive to do right by someone else.
The supporting cast is strong, particularly Jeff Perry in an arresting cameo as an arson expert who disputes the original investigators’ findings and Chris Coy as a guard who comes to view his prisoner in an entirely different light through their cellblock interactions over the years. Fletcher’s script is not without issues—fantasy sequences where Willingham converses with his seven or eight-year-old daughter (who was two when she died) are as hokey as they ineffective and the timing of a third-act catastrophe in Gilbert’s life is far too coincidental to be believable. (Indeed, while Gilbert did suffer a personal tragedy while working on Willingham’s case, it was not nearly so on the nose.) But those are minor problems in a film that offers a powerful indictment of a system that would rather kill an innocent man than admit error. –Pam Grady