On December 23, 1991, a Texas native named Cameron Todd Willingham was arrested for murdering his three children through arson. Willingham was executed over a decade later, a tragic act that begat controversy concerning the integrity of the evidence and investigations that lead to his conviction. Willingham’s story was explored through a 2011 documentary called Incendiary: The Willingham Case and a 2009 report by The New Yorker titled “Trail by Fire.” That report inspired director Edward Zwick’s latest film, Trial by Fire.

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TRIAL BY FIRE DVD REVIEW

Jack O’Connell portrays Willingham, whose house burns down in the first scene with his kids trapped within it. We slowly learn he wasn’t the town’s most reputable citizen; the guy didn’t have a job (and justified it by saying it’s to take care of his kids), was prone to having bursts of anger, drank heavily, had a toxic relationship with his wife Stacy (Emily Meade), and had prior run-ins with the law. He was, by all accounts, a bad citizen, the kind of person you can imagine committing a heinous act without straining your imagination. However, the film thoroughly sympathies with him; any chance audiences could be suspicious of him is immediately undercut by the opening act. Instead, Zwick focuses on how Willingham lost everything — family, home, freedom and dignity — as a rigged system set him behind bars and onto death row. 

While residing in his cell, Willingham coped by befriending one of his peers (who is promptly executed) and chats with an apparition of Amber, one of his daughters (the cinematography emphasizes how he’s talking to himself during these moments, as shots from the guard’s perspective never show her). Secondary protagonist Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) is brought in here, after the film’s midway point. A mother of two, she bonds with Willingham and tries to help him appeal his case one last time. Nevertheless, she’s not successful and the credits close with a morbid clip of former Texas governor Rick Perry defending his state’s capital punishment process.

The core of this story is wrongful execution, an important political issue that warrants conversation. It’s also a topic that would’ve benefited from being explored with more nuance; Trail by Fire is a rejection of capital punishment and the legal system’s corruption, something reiterated through uninspired dialogue and by how its narrative is presented and strung together. It leans more on cliched storytelling mechanics than presenting or explaining evidence; one of the best scenes was when Gilbert discovered new evidence that undermined the police investigation’s findings, and I wish we got more of that. Thankfully, Trail by Fire’s cast is fantastic; even during the weakest moments, the brutal prison scenes, the somewhat bloated middle act and the romanized elements, the actors all put on excellent performances that carry the picture. Even if its execution is lacking, this is a movie worth watching and it does have an important, tragic story to tell.

There are no bonus features on the DVD besides a photo gallery and a few trailers for other Lionsgate films. Because of the fascinating subject matter Fire tackled, this is profoundly disappointing.