Having survived the hatred and bigotry that was his Klansman grandfather's only legacy, young attorney Adam Hall seeks at the last minute to appeal the old man's death sentence for the murder of two small Jewish boys 30 years before. Only four weeks before Sam Cayhall is to be executed, Adam meets his grandfather for the first time in the Mississippi prison which has held him since the crime. The meeting is predictably tense when the educated, young Mr. "Hall" confronts his venom-spewing elder, Mr. "Cayhall," about the murders. The next day, headlines run proclaiming Adam the grandson who has come to the state to save his grandfather, the infamous Ku Klux Klan bomber. While the old man's life lies in the balance, Adam's motivation in fighting this battle becomes clear as the story unfolds. Not only does he fight for his grandfather, but perhaps for himself as well. He has come to heal the wounds of his own father's suicide, to mitigate the secret shame he has always felt for the ...Written by
Mark Fleetwood <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The late William Goldman had adapted the novel originally providing several drafts when Director Ron Howard was attached along with Brad Pitt and Gene Hackman had signed on to co-star. Once Howard and Pitt left, Director James Foley was hired thanks to his success on the teen thriller "Fear" which Howard and his partner, Brian Grazer produced that year. No one felt comfortable with the drafts Goldman was handing in and Phil Alden Robinson was brought in to punch it up and streamline the storyline. Robinson also encountered problems to the point that he used his pseudonym, Chris Reese for the final credits due to his own dissatisfaction with the film as well. Robinson has used this name only one other time so far in his career and to this date, this is the final one. See more »
When Adam is giving his argument, he states "Men rea - to do the deed". "Men rea" is the intent portion of a crime. "Actus reaus" is the act. See more »
A movie that you expect to be a courtroom drama actually turns out to be the story of a family and its past, as young lawyer Adam Hall (Chris O'Donnell) finds himself digging through several generations of family skeletons after he takes on the case of his grandfather Sam Cayhall (Gene Hackman), a racist scumbag found guilty years before of a Mississippi bombing that killed two Jewish children and now set to die in the gas chamber in less than a month unless Adam can find some way of commuting the death sentence.
The clear highlight of the movie is Hackman's performance. He was believable in a movie in which he's definitely cast against type. He becomes the epitome of the racist scumbag he's portraying, and yet the character's nature is also softened by the writers, who introduce uncertainties about Cayhall's level of involvement in the bombing and who raise the possibility that he may be feeling remorse for what happened. Cayhall in the end even does something somewhat noble. His daughter (played by Faye Dunaway) - who witnessed him murder a black man in an incident years before - has been haunted with guilt, believing that if she had let him know that she was present, he would never have killed the man in front of her eyes. She feels guilty, believing that she's responsible for the man's death and finally asks her father as she visits before his execution whether he would have killed the man if he had known she was there. He says he would have. It sounds like a harsh and cold statement coming from Cayhall, and yet he's really telling her that it wasn't her fault and she shouldn't feel guilty over what happened. I found that simple scene very moving - mainly because it seemed to be a lie. His body language seemed to suggest that he wouldn't have killed the man with his daughter watching, but he wanted to take away her feelings of guilt.
Perhaps, though, that also serves as the great weakness here - to me at least. Cayhall was a bad guy, but there seemed to be attempts to excuse him - especially with the repeated refrain that he had no choice but to become a hateful bigot. His father had been one, his father's father, and his father as well. How could Cayhall have turned out differently after three generations of hate? The obvious response (which was strangely never voiced) is that Cayhall's son (Adam's father, who had ultimately committed suicide, apparently out of shame from the family's past) turned out differently in spite of the four generations of hatred in the family before him. The whole idea that Cayhall was destined to be a racist because of his upbringing grated on me because of that. Still, Hackman's performance was great, and Cayhall was an interesting character.
Chris O'Donnell was overshadowed by Hackman in this. He was all right as Adam, but perhaps lacked a bit of spark that might have brought more life to the movie. The writers made a good decision in not developing a romance between Adam and Nora (Lela Rochon.) An inter-racial romance between the racist's grandson and lawyer and the governor's aide might have been an obvious direction to take, but it frankly would have been too obvious. The end result, though, was that Nora was a minor character. Her place in the story seemed ill-defined to me. There's a hint of some deep, dark secrets from the past that could come back to haunt some of Mississippi's political elite, but that never gets developed.
Many criticize this because it apparently strays quite liberally from the John Grisham novel on which it's based (which I've never read I admit.) Well, this is a movie. Movies and books are different. You can't just take a novel and make it fit the screen, so adaptations don't bother me as long as the end result on film is good. This was a good movie, and I appreciated the fact that while Cayhall's character was softened over the course of it, there was no real redemption for the character. He played his part in the children's deaths, and he paid the price for it. Overall, this is pretty good.
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