The best intentions can sometimes result in the weakest movies. “Trial by Fire,” a ham-fisted drama that tackles issues of wrongful imprisonment and the death penalty, is a waste of two sizable talents: British up-and-comer Jack O’Connell (“ ’71,” “Unbroken”) as the prisoner and Laura Dern as the amateur activist trying to free him before his scheduled demise. Director Ed Zwick (“Glory”) has had better moments, too.
The most unfortunate part is that the film poorly serves a real-life miscarriage of justice, the 2004 execution in Texas of Cameron Todd Willingham (O’Connell) for the arson murder of his three young children, despite exculpatory evidence that surfaced as the death date neared but was ignored by authorities. The story has been the subject of reporting in the Chicago Tribune and the New Yorker; the latter article, by David Grann, serves as the basis for Geoffrey Fletcher’s script. (A 2011 documentary was also devoted to the case.)
“Trial by Fire” hits the wrong notes from the start, with unconvincing digital effects used to re-create the blaze that tore through the Willingham house early one morning in 1991 and killed the couple’s three daughters while wife Stacy (Emily Meade) was away. The couple were poor and fractious; Todd Willingham had tattoos and poster art deemed “Satanic” and was known to have beaten his wife; he was a nasty customer and a natural suspect, despite his agonized claims that he loved his children and would have done nothing to harm them.
O’Connell overacts with drawling, in-your-face confidence as Willingham, daring audiences to like the character but also daring them to admire the performance. “Trial by Fire” cuts clumsily between the arson investigation and subsequent trial and flashbacks to the Willinghams’ squalid home life before the fire; it’s an attempt at character depth that emphasizes the screaming and verges on the incoherent. Only when Todd lands on death row does “Trial by Fire” settle in for a slow and sometimes compelling redemption arc in which even the guards and other prisoners come to believe in his innocence. McKinley Belcher III is especially charismatic as a fellow inmate; this is the second undeserving movie, after the recent “Mapplethorpe,” in which this actor has distinguished himself, and maybe someone will put him in a good one soon.
Dern’s character, Liz Gilbert, arrives halfway through “Trial by Fire” as an initially reluctant pen pal who gets drawn into the effort to keep Willingham from death. The movie dramatizes her difficulties with a teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn), a dying ex-husband (Wayne Pere), and other sidelights that arguably blunt the dramatic impact. It’s the rare case where a viewer might welcome more creative nipping and tucking rather than less.
A late-hour medical disaster nearly derails the film, in fact, but “Trial by Fire” presses forward with its case, awkwardly but convincingly presented, that arson investigators went looking for convictable evidence and ignored accidental causes or anything else that didn’t fit; that prosecution witnesses lied on the stand; that Willingham’s lawyer was absurdly negligent. And the film heavily implies that officials in the administration of Governor Rick Perry let an execution go forward that slaked the electorate’s bloodlust at the expense of an innocent man’s life.
Powerful stuff, but unpowerfully told, in part because the energies in “Trial by Fire” are split between proving Todd Willingham’s innocence and building an argument against the death penalty no matter what the verdict. Should attention be paid? Of course. But better films get seen by bigger audiences, and that matters, too.
Trial by Fire
Directed by Ed Zwick. Written by Geoffrey Fletcher, based on a New Yorker article by David Grann. Starring Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern. At Kendall Square. 127 minutes. R (crude sexual content and language).