Shot in the Heart
Director: Agnieszka Holland

Director: Tim Robbins

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Shot in the Heart (2001) is about the younger brother of Utah murderer Gary Gilmore. Gilmore had asked for the fast-track to being executed by firing squad. Only a family member has the option of filing for a stay when the subject of an execution refuses to do so. The younger man begins visiting his brother daily during his last week of life, trying to decide whether or not to intervene in his behalf, or to respect his brother's wish to be killed at once.

Despite slicker direction than most telefilms, Shot in the Heart suffers from telefilm weaknesses: trepidation about looking too harshly at harsh circumstances to be aired in prime time, & too many talking heads. It comes dangerously close to soap opera at times, investigating the impact on the family of a murderer on death row.

Having not seen his criminal brother in years, it's a sad way to get to know him at last. Giovanni Ribisi as the young brother is soulful in his performance, but frankly not half as interesting as he usually is, saddled by a weak script scared to treat its own unsavory subject.

Ellias Koteas of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit brings no special depth to his portrayal of Gary Gilmore. He takes an unlikeable character & makes sure he remains that way. As the script reveals the standard sorts of explanations or excuses as to how such violent criminals come into being, Koteas just cannot drum up either fascination for a monster nor sympathy for the man. It's pretty basic "television acting," competent with neither passion nor daring.

More play than cinema, the film stumbles from conversation to redundant conversation. We learn a lot about Gary Gilmore's family, & while the script doesn't really make excuses for Gilmore, neither does it provide any insights into his nature beyond the obvious. Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking (1995) manages to give so much depth to an unforgiveable killer that one feels sympathy for him despite that he cannot be excused. By comparison to Penn, well, Koteas is strictly a television actor for good reason.

There's no suspense since we know perfectly well that history's Gary Gilmore went before the firing squad. So the film's success or lack of success is dependent on our caring about these two men's relationship as brothers. Whoever can be suckered into the story despite its mediocrity may well be induced to care, but I was never for a moment captivated.

Dead Man WalkingBy comparison I was held rapt by Sean Penn's performance in Dead Man Walking. He plays a bad man, a very bad man, but nevertheless a man. The relationship that develops with Sister Helen Prejean, superbly played by Susan Sarandon, has incredible depth & complexity to it.

Director Tim Robbins, his wife Sarandon, & Penn himself are notoriously liberal in their politics, & so this film exists in great part as a statement against capital punishment. The daring thing here is that they have stacked the deck in favor of the death penalty by having an egregious crime committed in the most coldblooded manner by a rapist murderer very difficult to have empathy for.

In the political analysis it is not about the fact that a percentage of innocent people have been killed by the government by crimes they did not commit, as Matthew Poncelot did the crime. It's not about minorities being more likely to be killed than whites, as Poncelot is white. It's not even about bad people having gotten that way through no fault of their own. The story asks for the viewer to look closely at one thing only: the inhumanity of execution even under circumstances many would justify.

The story is based on actual events, however, not political debate, & Dead Man Walking would not be the fine film that it is if it wasn't in reality about people's lives, about the capacity for forgiveness vs the capacity for grudge, & about a religious woman's journey not into but alongside darkness. This film is deeply emotional without even one moment that is merely maudlin.

It also has one of the most remarkable soundtracks of any film ever, the music written specially for this film by sundry folks like Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, & Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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