Trial By Fire ***

It’s manipulative in the right way, with solid performances crafting a narrative that’s good for conversation with friends afterward. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 
In "Trial By Fire," the protagonist begins as a hateful man, a loser philanderer unworthy of our respect or attention. When he’s condemned to die, it’s no big loss. While on death row he evolves, though, and as he does he grows on us. We kind of like him, it turns out. Maybe he didn’t murder his kids after all.

Movies are always manipulating the audience, and “Trial By Fire” does it in the most obvious ways possible. However, the emotional roller coaster is highlighted by solid performances and the intriguing, discussion-starting question prompted by the ending, so the pros outweigh the cons here.

The story, a fascinating exploration of the questionable innocence of a death row inmate, begins two days before Christmas in 1991. A fire breaks out in a rundown home in remote Corsicana, Texas, and three children die. Matriarch Stacy (Emily Meade) isn't home, leaving patriarch Todd (Jack O'Connell) alone to try (and fail) to rescue the kids.

But did he really try?

Investigators, prosecutors and eyewitnesses paint the picture of an emotionally and physically abusive drunk with a criminal record who saved himself and his car before the children. Todd also, they say, didn't want to be a father, going so far as to kick Stacy in the stomach when she was pregnant in the hope of inducing a miscarriage. The jury deliberates for an hour, Todd is found guilty, and is sentenced to death by lethal injection.

At this point in director Edward Zwick's ("Legends Of The Fall") film, the audience has no choice but to believe Todd is guilty. We learn early on that he lied to police in the past, so naturally he'd do so again while maintaining his innocence. The evidence is more than convincing, and he's clearly a deadbeat. Yeah, definitely guilty.

Until Zwick wants us to doubt Todd's guilt, that is. Seven years later, and more than 45 minutes into the 127-minute film, we meet Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), a divorcee mother of two teenagers who's looking for a purpose in life. She is connected to Todd through a pen pal service; they exchange letters, she likes him, and soon becomes his advocate in proving his innocence before he's killed. So begins a process of hope, new evidence, frustrations, more hope, and unlikely allies. As the point of view shifts from Todd to Elizabeth, the audience begins to think "wait a minute! Maybe he's not guilty after all!" because that's what Elizabeth is thinking.

Or at least it's what she wants to believe. Indeed, much of "Trial By Fire" is what people want to believe: The investigators want to believe Todd is guilty, so the evidence they find suggests that accordingly. Elizabeth wants to believe he's innocent, so she acts accordingly. The only one who truly doesn't know what to believe is Stacy, who worries, she says, that if Todd is exonerated the authorities will come after her. She will never know the truth of what happened to her babies, so she learns to believe what she chooses to believe.

This is key, because the audience is essentially asked the same question in the end: What do you want to believe – did Todd really kill his kids or not? The story has a conclusion, but there's enough gray area to question Todd’s guilt. If nothing else, "Trial By Fire" is an ideal conversation starter.

Did you know?
The story is based on Todd's letters and an article in "The New Yorker" by David Grann:

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