Edward Zwick’s biographical drama brims with emotive energy, held together by two knock-out performances from Jack O’Connell and Laura Dern. In fact, it’s these performances that save Trial by Fire from being a little underwhelming; leaning on predictable plot tropes and conflicted motivations a little too much. The direction of the film follows no real path; at one point striving to prove Cameron Willingham’s innocence (O’Connell) and the next, condemning capital punishment, regardless of the verdict. Nonetheless, Trial by Fire is an engaging drama that builds a strong connection between character and audience. Despite Willingham’s anti-heroic tendencies, viewers are still able to extend their sympathies with ease, rooting for his escape from death row.
When Cameron’s children tragically die in a house fire, he is sentenced to death, only moments after the funeral, on three account of murder. Following a gripping opening scene that, unfortunately, tumbles into rushed exposition, Cameron faces his time in jail without a clear end in sight. Desperate for his freedom, he spends the next twelve years educating and improving himself, claiming the help of investigator Elizabeth Gilbert (Dern) to clear his name. Scrutinising the details of his unfair trial, Dern longs for justice just as much as Cameron does. But it’ll take more than one woman—however passionate—to fix a broken system.
Trial by Fire would have perhaps benefited from a more focused chronology, honing in on one segment of Cameron’s story rather than speeding through all of it. Dern’s tender, sophisticated delivery would have benefited the film had she appeared from the start rather than mid-way through. Because of this, it fell on O’Connell’s shoulders alone to carry the story through (though he did so marvellously). That said, the characters themselves, and their relationships to each other, were well-developed–despite a plodding, fractured narrative flow.
Trial by Fire oozes with dramatic tension; we can feel Cameron’s desperation pulsing from the screen, caught in a hallucinogenic daze. Lacklustre graphics are made up for with many heartfelt scenes, bringing viewers to the brink of tears. O’Connell’s attempt at a Texan accent is exceedingly well-executed in comparison to many other English actor’s attempts (I won’t name any names). Having a number of directorial success in the past—Blood Diamond (2006) and Legends of the Fall (1994)—it’s a shame Zwick missed the mark on this one. Though admittedly, it was only by a fraction. Trial by Fire is still well-worth the watch, available to buy from Amazon here.