Laura Dern and 'Unbroken's' Jack O'Connell bring story of Texas inmate to life

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Cameron Todd Willingham was sentenced to death for killing his three children in a fire, a crime that evidence suggested he may not have committed.

Director Edward Zwick navigates the tricky story of Willingham in "Trial by Fire," a powerful drama with a commanding central performance by Jack O'Connell. 

O'Connell plays Willingham, a Texas lowlife in an abusive relationship with his wife, Stacy (Emily Meade). Their spats have plenty of fireworks. But when their house goes up in flames, burning their children while they sleep, is Willingham to blame? 

The film lets you think maybe he is. Fire investigators treat it as an open and shut case, and Willingham is too poor to afford decent representation. He's sentenced to death row, despite his pleas of innocence. 

O'Connell digs in deep, finding the conflicted soul inside Willingham, as he lives out his days on death row. It's a tremendous performance, as O'Connell slowly transforms everything from his speech patterns to his body language over the course of the film.

He finds an advocate in Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), a Texas widow and mother of two who takes an interest in his case and fights for his innocence. Their committed performances help "Trial by Fire" overcome surface-level genre cliches.

Those cliches begin to pile up in the third act, as "Trial by Fire" becomes a race against the clock as Willingham's execution looms. Zwick, working from a script by Geoffrey Fletcher (based on a New Yorker article), shows the failings of the justice system while not letting Willingham entirely off the hook. O'Connell and Dern, meanwhile, find the common ground in their characters that keeps "Trial by Fire" simmering. 

'Trial by Fire'

GRADE: B

Rated R: language throughout, some violence, disturbing images, sexual material and brief nudity

Running time: 127 minutes

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