The Chamber (1996)
Even family ties should be unknotted sometimes.
31 January 2022
Warning: Spoilers
It's ironic that the opening of this film takes place at the time when Faye Dunaway and Gene Hackman were making their star creating legacy in "Bonnie and Clyde". They are reunited 30 years later for this adaption of the John Grisham novel where Hackman is on death row for an act of terrorism (blowing up the lawfirm of a Jewish man), and three decades later is about to be gassed. Dunaway is his estranged daughter, and Chris McDonnell is his grandson, trying to get Hackman off of death row. This of course upsets Dunaway who had to deal with the scandal, the suicide of her brother, McDonnell's father, and desperately wants to keep that shame of her life hidden. Who can blame her? Duniway is now a Southern accented Auntie Mame type who drinks too much, has a husband she barely sees and is consumed with hatred for her father oh, not so much for what he did, but by how it impacted her life.

McDonnell has 28 days before the scheduled execution to get the sentence changed, and this gives him the opportunity to get to know his grandfather a bit, setting the record straight. "I was always embarrassed to be represented by such blatant bigots" the bigot (Hackman) says about having initially been represented by Jewish attorneys, and so begins the desire to watch his character fry. McDonnell doesn't even reveal at first that sees his grandson, but Hackman quickly figured it out. He questions how many women, blacks and Jews there are partners at the law firm McDonnell works for, and continues to about racist lingo every time they meet. It's a difficult role for Hackman to tackle, but he makes it commanding simply because he's Gene Hackman, not because you care about what happens to this character.

This is a a difficult subject matter to put on screen to entertain you, but as long as happen is on screen, it's riveting. While Faye Dunaway got nominations for worst supporting actress for her performance here, I don't think she's all that bad. I just think she wasn't very consistent in certain elements of it, and perhaps an actress a less of a name value would have been a better choice. In the supporting cast are such respected actors like Harve Presnell, Robert Prosky and Nicholas Pryor. Lela Rochon get your attention immediately as an assistant to the governor, while Millie Perkins, Anne Frank in the classic 1959 movie, is appropriately cast as the widow of the man injured in the bombing which resulted in the death of her twin sons.

This truly could have been a great movie, but certain elements of the story takes this in twists that seem to delay the inevitable and attempts to add a bit of sympathy for Hackman's character. Discussions over how Hackman would end up being executed (gas chamber or lethal injection) gives indication that Hackman would rather be gassed because the pain would give him justified punishment rather than the less painful lethal injection. I saw this years ago when it first came out on video and watching it again, noticed that it has a good structure, intense moments, but I don't feel the need to sit through the execution scene again. Hackman and Dunaway's one scene is probably the only genuinely bad moment, rather awkward and unconvincing. An unfortunate missed opportunity that really needed a stronger and more straightforward script without pushing an agenda.
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