Poor white trash. That’s what the police and courts in Cameron Todd Willingham’s hometown think of him in Edward Zwick’s Trial by Fire. Todd (Jack O’Connell) is a long-haired, tattooed, unemployed heavy drinker and ne’er-do-well who plays around on his cute-but-dumb wife Stacy (Emily Meade) while she’s at work. He also has heavy metal rock posters in his bedroom, so naturally to the police in Corsicana, Texas, that makes him a Satanist.
When Todd and Stacy’s home erupts in flames one morning, incinerating their three young daughters as the terrified Todd stands helplessly by, the investigators automatically figure he set the fire deliberately. Todd is tried for murder and arson, convicted in a hurry, and sent to death row in the state that leads the U.S. in capital punishment. Todd does hard time. Everybody hates a kid killer, especially corrections officer Daniels (Chris Coy). And worse, despite his protestations of innocence and love for his daughters, Stacy seems to agree Todd is guilty and refuses to visit him in prison.
That’s the true-story situation that director Zwick (The Last Samurai), screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, and New Yorker writer David Grann arrange before our eyes. Human punching bag Todd doesn’t have a prayer until out of the blue, a guardian angel named Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) begins writing to him, convinced he’s innocent. In movie terms, that just about the worst thing that could happen to Todd, and actor O’Connell — to play the fulcrum to Dern’s lever in a routine hand-wringer about everyday American injustice, trimmed with magic realism fantasy sequences.
Dern enthusiasts may find value, but there’s an easier way to achieve the same effect: At 2:30 in the morning, pour yourself three fingers of whiskey and listen to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, paying close attention to each separate character. That way you’ll get the point, and also miss Rick Perry’s jerkwater rationale for the death penalty. Forget about Trial by Fire.