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Trial by Fire and My Days of Mercy movies review: two (rare) new dramas about the US death penalty

MaryAnn’s quick take: Two very different films, replete with emotionally engaging performances, examine the impact of the American death penalty from the large-scale legal and political to that of intimate personal grief.
I’m “biast” (pro): very anti-capital punishment; love the casts of both films
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have read the Trial by Fire source material (and I like it)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I’m not sure if many Americans realize what an aberration it is that the United States still regularly executes its own citizens. What other nations do this? China. North Korea. Those in the Middle East. That’s… not great company for the supposed (if self-declared) global bastion of freedom and enlightenment. As a social-justice cause, putting an end to capital punishment has been a bit backburnered in the Trump era — in pop culture, I mean; plenty righteous real-life SJWs have continued to fight the good fight in this regard. Though maybe it’s only my perception that movies have stepped back from confronting this issue: the death penalty has never really been a major pop-culture concern. It’s probably only a coincidence that two new movies about capital punishment in America have arrived, one each on either side of the Atlantic. Both are only small releases anyway, and unlikely to make much of a splash. But I am trying here…

what if we execute an innocent person?
Playing on around 100 screens in the US — that’s not tiny, but nowhere near wide, either — is Trial by Fire, an earnest, old-fashioned social-justice drama that focuses on the death penalty from the “what if we execute an innocent person?” angle. This one is based on true events, and spun off a 2009 New Yorker article by David Grann, which you can read online. (The script is by Geoffrey Fletcher, Oscar winner for Precious.) In the early 1990s, in rural Texas, Cameron Todd Willingham was accused of murdering his three very young daughters in a house fire that investigators concluded was arson specifically targeting the children; Willingham, the only other person in the house at the time, was convicted and sentenced to death based on allegedly scientific evidence as well as his own sketchy past, which included domestic violence, a public perception that the kids were cramping his loser lifestyle, and an affinity for heavy-metal music and its grim trappings. (Though the film does not mention this, this was all happening square in the middle of America’s Satanic panic.) Willingham always maintained his innocence.

Here we meet Willingham as the film opens, with the fire, and he instantly comes across as a despicable dirtbag: watching him protectively pushing his car away from his burning house while his kids are dying inside is… not pleasant, and not conducive to sympathizing with him. Yet at the same time, the bar is very high to imagining anyone killing their own children, even if we know it does happen with depressing regularity. Emotional engagement with Willingham here is a fucking roller coaster, because he’s played by the stunning Jack O’Connell (Unbroken, ’71), one of the most intriguing young actors working today: he is so very capable of selling both charming psychopathy and wounded innocence. Who knows what to believe about what happened, what he’s accused of, and where the truth lies?

Trial by Fire Laura Dern
TFW you have to assure your friends that your do-goodery is not a cover for a romance with a death-row felon…

And then, about 40 minutes into the film, the always enrapturing Laura Dern (Cold Pursuit, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) shows up as Elizabeth Gilbert, a kindly bleeding heart who gets swept up into Willingham’s story. He’s been on death row for years at this point, several appeals already exhausted, and she’s just a nice stranger lady willing to befriend a lonely soul, no matter what he may have done. She’s not stupid: she figures he’s most likely guilty. But also: She’s not stupid, and she get sucked into the anomalies of his case, and drawn into the possibility that he might actually be as innocent as he claims. (A sidebar aspect of Trial is all about the price that people like Gilbert pay for their social-justice work. It can be a dear one.)

If you do not already know what happened to Willingham, whether his death sentence was ultimately carried out or he was vindicated or what, I’ll leave it to you to discover. Either way, how Willingham ended up on death row is, we see here, a parade of injustice, and a staggering indictment of American jurisprudence. And it becomes clear that the state of Texas — at this point in Willingham’s story incarnate in Governor Rick Perry — cares only about its tough-guy image, and about executing as many people as possible. You would think that proponents of the death penalty would be all about ensuring that those put to death by the state are actually guilty of the crimes they are accused of, but this seems not to be the case. Trial by Fire ends up a damning of this ultimate punishment as hugely problematic if it can be deployed for purely political purposes, never mind all the normal human error that its prosecution will inevitably embody. And without the possibility of restitution if you get it wrong and put to death someone innocent.

how does the death penalty impact those not on death row?
My Days of Mercy — which has gotten an absolutely minuscule theatrical release in the UK, but was at least simultaneously released on demand — offers a very different take on the death penalty in America. British screenwriter Joe Barton (The Ritual) and Israeli director Tali Shalom-Ezer look in with keen outsiders’ eyes on the sad (fictional) tale of Lucy (Ellen Page: Flatliners, The Cured), who — along with her sister, Martha (Amy Seimetz: Wild Nights with Emily, Pet Sematary) — travels regularly to the prison sites of impending executions to participate in anti-death-penalty vigils. Inevitably such protests are met by gatherings of supporters of capital punishment… and at one such event, Lucy meets pro-execution Mercy (Kate Mara: Megan Leavey, Morgan).

My Days of Mercy Ellen Page Kate Mara
This is the only hint of fence-sitting to be found in My Days of Mercy

Their friendship — initially uneasy, for obvious reasons — soon turns romantic, then sexual, but this isn’t particularly a love story. Nor does Mercy evince any particularly activist bent, even though it’s actually about an activist. Lucy and Mercy’s relationship is a prism through which to examine how the impact of the death penalty ripples out far beyond those on death row, in a way that is hardly subtle, and yet still feels somehow delicate, thanks in large part to the beautifully incisive performances by Page and Mara. Both women have personal connections to death-row inmates, and both have been impacted by crimes that have earned those inmates the death penalty, yet they’ve reacted in radically opposite ways. Mercy is happy to admit that a satisfying revenge is justification enough for putting the convicted to death; Lucy is weighted down by complex guilt and grief as a victim of violent crime, and the impact on her is only being perpetuated and extended by the application of the death penalty in her situation.

My Days of Mercy directly confronts the notion that what constitutes fairness and justice when it comes to capital punishment is more than merely the legal and the political, that individuals are changed on an intimate level and that society is hardened on a cultural level when the death penalty is the law of the land. The film is not understated in this regard: Capital punishment makes the world — and the people in it — colder, harsher, and more selfish. This is not a movie that anyone in favor of the death penalty will see themselves kindly reflected in. And I’m good with that. So perhaps this isn’t an entirely unactivist movie, after all.

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