Saying a film is so bad it becomes a parody of its original intentions is sort of a critical cliché. The would-be prestige film Trial by Fire proves that assessment sometimes necessary by unknowingly (one would hope) taking it one step further and becoming a full realization of the fake Oscar-bait film-within-a-film around which The Player (1992) revolves, the death-row drama Habeas Corpus. The joke within the early-’90s Robert Altman opus is that the intention of mounting a purposely dour indie film for the sake of prestige is just as insidious as a tentpole money grab from a big studio. By the end of The Player, Habeas Corpus becomes both: the Dream Factory at its most well-oiled and cynical.
A tedious and toothless screed against the U.S. criminal-justice system, Trial by Fire comes from one of the foremost awards-hungry filmmakers working today, Edward Zwick, whose directorial products are exactly the aim of Altman’s Hollywood satire. Although Zwick does have a prized golden statuette for producing Shakespeare in Love (1998) — a notoriously contentious bestowment — his most recently directed stabs at awards glory include the swing-and-misses of the World War II actioner Defiance (2008), the romantic drama Love & Other Drugs (2010), and the Bobby Fischer biopic Pawn Sacrifice (2014).
Trial by Fire is as anonymously executed as these past works, with the dubious addition of the hamfisted writing that embodies Zwick’s penchant for self-serious “issue” films. Here, he’s working from a script by Geoffrey Fletcher, the 2010 Adapted Screenplay Oscar winner for Precious. That screenplay is in turn adapted from journalist David Grann’s 2009 New Yorker article about Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), a Texas man convicted and sentenced to death for the arson of his own home, which resulted in the deaths of his two young daughters. The incident came to Grann’s attention after the 2004 execution of Willingham and long after Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), a playwright and Willingham’s unlikely ally, failed to have the conviction and sentencing overturned with new evidence that would likely prove the inmate’s innocence.
To denigrate Zwick’s latest is not to criticize the subject matter. On the contrary, the injustices faced by incarcerated and wrongfully convicted citizens is a topic worthy of increasing exploration in the media. Ava DuVernay's great 2016 documentary 13th traced today’s abusive and unfairly biased prison system to the abolishment of slavery, and the true-crime wave has wrought countless podcasts and television series about the criminal-justice system. However, Trial by Fire is just a pale facsimile of I Want to Live! (1957) for the Serial era, a feckless rehash of well-trod material that repurposes beats from its forebears to manipulate its audience into swallowing its own supposed importance. Only Dern manages to transcend the material in creating a life-like figure – she’s rarely capable of anything else – while the rest of the cast are just fine to stay within the confines of the script’s after-school-special mode.
That Gilbert and her investigation into the incident don’t materialize until halfway into the film betrays its makers’ inability to find any potentially interesting angles in the material. Instead of a Citizen Kane-like structure that could could refract “truth” through inquiry, the film plods through the years linearly, opening on the fire that would eventually lead to Willingham’s execution. As the ensuing police investigation and trial commence, Willingham and his wife, Stacy (Emily Meade), are oddly portrayed without grief, as if to allude to their possible guilt in committing the crime. The film, however, doesn’t appear to be interested in that kind of subversive obfuscation and instead supplants grief or guilt with strident declarations of the couple’s innocence.
As Willingham, O’Connell’s performance is as presentational as the bad wigs he dons throughout the film. It’s not until his volatile bumpkin character meets with Gilbert through the prison's visiting-room glass that the actor reaches nuance – a clear sign that Dern is doing much of the work here to elevate the proceedings. Gilbert, a single mother of two teens whose father has recently died, is built with far more interesting detail. There are shades of a romantic connection between Gilbert and Willingham, which are further complicated by her excavation into his violent past. The rhetorical shift to her perspective does slightly reinvigorate the familiar prison horror story that precedes it.
If it weren’t for the nonchalant mistreatment of material deserving a more complicated film, Trial by Fire might have become a laughable camp object. The computer-generated fire laid over the Willingham’s home just can’t seem to cause any tangible damage, and, in a later flashback, these phony flames act as a backdrop as Cameron howls, “My babies are burning!” Just as absurd is the arc of death-row guard Daniels (Chris Coy) from abusive monster to empathetic friend of Willingham’s — not to mention the character’s role in the inmate’s execution. The film’s ultimate denouement, however, in which a garbage trucks acts as an anti-deus ex machina, is the straw that breaks this extremely feeble camel’s back. The real trial by fire with Zwick’s film is its viewers’ ability to believe almost anything about it.