Could Watching The Chamber Count as Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

Directed by James Foley / 1996

Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Blu-Ray Street Date Nov 13, 2018

On paper, at least, it couldn’t miss. The Chamber is a legal thriller adapted from a John Grisham novel, co-written by the legendary William Goldman and starring Chris O’Donnell and Gene Hackman (who’s, you know, good in anything). James Foley directed it, and while he didn’t have a deep filmography at the time, he had helmed At Close Range and Glengarry Glen Ross. If The Chamber wasn’t going to be a great movie, like The Firm, it would at least be a solid thriller like The Pelican Brief, A Time to Kill, or The Rainmaker. But that’s not what happened. It turns out The Chamber is a misfire on almost every level.

The movie opens on a small town in Mississippi in 1967. An explosion destroys the office of a Jewish lawyer. The bomb kills the lawyer’s two small boys and maims the lawyer- who later commits suicide over the tragedy. The authorities arrest Sam Cayhall (Hackman), a member of the Ku Klux Klan and a guy known for his penchant for blowing things up. Cayhall is convicted (after 15 years and two hung juries) and sentenced to death for the crime. As Cayhall’s date with the gas chamber approaches, a young, idealistic lawyer from Chicago takes up his case. This is Adam Hall (O’Donnell, Scent of a Woman). Why is Adam so eager to help Cayhall? Well, it turns out that Hall is Cayhall’s grandson. Following the murder, Cayhall’s family moved away and changed their name. Hall explains all this to another lawyer early on in the movie, thus preventing the audience from feeling any unwelcome surprise or suspense.

Cayhall is less than thrilled with his new counsel, even after the old man figures out the familial connections upon their first meeting. While serving his time, the old man has become a jailhouse lawyer himself. He doesn’t believe the young Hall has a viable strategy for getting him off death row, especially not when the governor was the prosecutor who put him there in the first place. Still, Adam knows there’s more to this story than what first appears. He comes to believe that grandad is a patsy for the people who were the ones behind the bombing.

The Chamber is a misfire on almost every level

So that’s not an awful set up for a death row legal thriller, is it? A southern gothic, sins-of-the-father sort of story, where an naive and green outsider tries to uncover the skeletons that lurk in the otherwise respectable closets of powerful people who’d just as soon keep them hidden. That sounds like a pretty exciting legal thriller, doesn’t it? It sure does. It’s a shame that what we get instead is the limp noodle that is The Chamber.

The real problem with the film- the one that stands above all the many other problems this film has is in its leading character. While O’Donnell plays the part of the young crusading lawyer well enough, it’s a thin and bland part. Adam doesn’t make any meaningful change over the course of the story. He begins his story sincere and impassioned and horrified by Sam’s racism, and ends his story sincere and impassioned and horrified by Sam’s racism. O’Donnell, for all his screen charm, just doesn’t have it within him to bring anything more to Adam’s journey.

But none of the performers are served well by this movie. Faye Dunaway- man, she was good once, wasn’t she?- does…. I don’t know what it is that she’s doing in this movie. It’s like those parodies you see in better movies of bad TV soap opera acting. It’s almost brilliant, except it’s tonally out of line with everyone else in the film. It reaches its apogee in a scene where she reveals a dark secret she witnessed from the boughs of her “very own laurel tree.” This is supposed to be a dramatic reveal. After that (not quite halfway through), her character all but disappears from the story. When the editors cut any of her remaining scenes, it had to be considered a mercy killing.

But it’s Gene Hackman that’s got the toughest role to play here. When we first meet Hackman as Sam Cayhall, the character starts spouting off such racist vitriol absent of any real context, it’s almost as if Cayhall suffers from some sort of racist Tourette’s Syndrome. And just so the audience understands this character is really, really racist, he’s like that the second and third time we meet him as well. Maybe all the times, but to be honest I sort of started to get numb to it after a while. So Hackman’s playing Racist McRacistpants, who is in prison for blowing up 5 year olds, who is hostile to the one guy who comes along to save him from the gas chamber. And Hackman still manages to generate twinges of sympathy from us for the old man. He tells the story of a botched execution at one point, and we can see that for all his belligerence, Cayhall’s genuinely scared of going into that chamber. In another scene, a guard lets Cayhall out into the yard for what could be his final sunrise, and Hackman’s performance makes that scene a moment of grace.  It humanizes him in a way the film otherwise seems to aggressively avoid doing.

The movie is less interested in its conspiracy than we are.

The Chamber tries to have its moments of physical danger as Adam investigates the men behind the bombing, but they’re fleeting and there isn’t a lot of tension. The movie is less interested in its conspiracy than we are. But the core of the movie is empty because we’re not invested in Adam’s cause. This, in turn, amplifies all the other issues the movie has with its other performances, its pacing and its attempts at social relevance. Any movie would have a hard time surviving those sorts of problems, but its  a real death sentence when the lead character is missing.