Paramount // 1982 // 135 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // August 5th, 2008
"On the inside of every wolf is a scared little punk looking for revenge. I don't want anyone holding me down again. I wanna die. I wanna stay strong." -- Gary Gilmore
In 1979, writer Norman Mailer published his best-selling book The Executioner's Song about the horrific case of Gary Gilmore, a convicted killer who eagerly sought his execution at a time when the United States was facing a debate over capital punishment. Mailer adapted his book into a screenplay for a TV movie that aired in 1982, earning critical acclaim and an Emmy award for its star, Tommy Lee Jones. Nonetheless, the film was somewhat compromised, as it had to be edited to conform to TV broadcast standards. An uncensored version was released in Europe, but U.S. audiences were unable to see that version for many years. Now, an unedited director's cut has finally been issued on DVD, and viewers can truly appreciate what a powerful film The Executioner's Song really is.
In 1976, Gary Gilmore (Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive) is released from prison after serving a twelve-year sentence and attempts to start a new life in Provo, Utah. His cousin, Brenda Nicol (Christine Lahti, Chicago Hope) and his uncle, Vern Damico (Eli Wallach, The Magnificent Seven) try to find him a job and home, while single mom Nicole Baker (Rosanna Arquette, Pulp Fiction) starts an ill-fated romance with him. Unfortunately, Gilmore is simply unable or unwilling to escape his violent past and slowly unravels until he embarks on a murder spree that ends with two people dead. After he's convicted and sentenced to death, Gilmore becomes a political cause célèbre when he demands a quick execution and activists on both sides of the death penalty issue fight over Gilmore's insistence on being executed as soon as possible.
The most remarkable thing about The Executioner's Song is that even though it deals with one of the most sensational murder cases of the 20th century, there is nothing the least bit sensationalistic about it. Director Lawrence Schiller, who worked with Mailer on the book, has made a film that is as spare and unadorned as its setting. Schiller and Mailer wisely understand that even though this film involves two horrific murders and the death penalty, making this into the typical made-for-TV fare of shocking close-ups, dramatic zooms, and shrieking overacting would violate the very nature of Gilmore's life and surroundings.
In fact, more than most other films of its type, The Executioner's Song understands the bleakness and emptiness of Gilmore's world and how it ultimately leads to his destruction. This is a quiet and uneasy film about dented metal, chipped paint, and cracked wood, about worn-down buildings, cars that don't start, and menial jobs that lead nowhere and pay poorly. Even the visual style of the film is deliberately grim. Rather than go for a sunny appearance that shows off the Utah vistas majestically, Schiller chooses a grainy, desaturated look. The lack of color reflects the lack of vitality in Gilmore's existence, and it makes the snow-capped mountains look like forbidding prison walls. It's hard to think of another film that better captures the feeling of living amongst Western mountains that can sometimes look imposing, like impassable barriers that will keep you forever in your place.
Gilmore begins the film as he arrives in Utah free after twelve years in prison, but it very quickly becomes apparent that his future on the outside isn't particularly more promising than the one he had on the inside. With his criminal record and no job skills or training, Gilmore can hope for no better than a lifetime of soul-crushing jobs, perpetual debt, and nights of drinking himself into a stupor alone. When he meets Baker, he finds someone who is just as damaged and vulnerable as he is, but his volatile personality and lack of self-control drives her away. Money becomes harder to find, and his temper and mouth get the better of him too many times. Gilmore is simply not smart or disciplined enough to deal with the frustrations and challenges of life outside prison, and the film slowly becomes more unsettling, as we see that he is inevitably becoming a time bomb that will go off violently.
The second half of the film, dealing with the murders and their aftermath, is riveting. What's significant is that the murders Gilmore commits are not acts of passion, nor are they well-planned. They seem like afterthoughts, like he decided to simply pull the trigger on a whim. His victims are chosen randomly, and neither one represents any threat to him (in fact, he kills them both execution style). The murders are done as his horrifically stupid way to deal with his problems. He never seems to grasp their significance at all. Wisely, Schiller refrains from showing the murders too graphically, since the actual blood and gore isn't that important. What matters is that it becomes obvious that Gilmore will do something like this, given his unstable personality and increasing unhappiness.
The Executioner's Song does not actually take a specific side in the death penalty debate. The film isn't meant to proselytize for one side or the other, as the issue is simply too complex to address in a two-hour script. What it does argue, subtly yet convincingly, is that Gilmore is not nearly as brave or remorseful as he thinks he is when he demands to be executed. Instead, much as when he committed the murders, he's actually taking the easy way out. Rather than take a hard look at himself and live with the aftermath of what he has done, he decides instead to settle for a quick and painless death. This is made clear in a chilling scene where Gilmore, visited by his estranged younger brother Mikal (Grant Gottschal), gives a devastating monologue on why he wants to die. (In real life, Mikal Gilmore was an editor at Rolling Stone who wrote an excellent book about his brother's story called Shot in the Heart.)
The performances are stellar. Jones is, of course, the standout and richly deserved his accolades. His understated performance depicts Gilmore as a man who is capable of acts of kindness and tenderness (especially with Baker), but who also lacks the ability or courage to deal with his problems head-on. He gives Gilmore the complexity and depth necessary to make this more than just a run-of-the-mill TV movie. Lahti and Wallach are both excellent as Gilmore's family, who try to love him and help him, but who both grow increasingly shocked as he deteriorates and who struggle to stand by him even though they can neither understand nor forgive what he has done. Arquette, playing a naïve and damaged (but world-weary) young mother, is sometimes given more credit for her looks than her talent, but here she hits the right notes. She's especially good in the later scenes, as she convincingly expresses Baker's love and devotion to Gilmore even as he has destroyed whatever chance they had at a healthy relationship. Coupled with the writing and direction, the performances help make The Executioner's Song a drama that's a cut above most made-for-TV movies.
The Executioner's Song is included here in a new 135-minute director's cut. Interestingly, the original TV version was 20 minutes longer, but it's hard to say if any of the cut scenes are significant, since this version flows easily and nothing feels missing. The other noticeable difference is that there are a few (though not too many) four-letter words, some explicitness (though never actual nudity) in the love scenes between Jones and Arquette, and some blood during the depictions of Gilmore's murders. None of it is earth-shattering (especially when compared to your average R-rated crime film) but viewers should note that this is not the safe-for-TV version that originally aired in 1982. The new changes are necessary, however, as they only add to the film's austere realism.
The full-screen transfer is acceptable, though sometimes marred with scratches. The film may look murky, but most of that is presumably due to the source material. The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono mix is actually quite clear. There are, sadly, no extras. It would have been incredibly fascinating to hear from the cast and crew or to get some historical perspective on the real Gary Gilmore. The scenes cut out from the TV version should have also been included so that viewers could compare the differences.
The only serious misstep in The Executioner's Song is in the score. Though the original songs by country star Waylon Jennings are haunting and fit the mood of the film, there are a couple of orchestral dramatic stings inserted into crucial scenes. These are every bit as cheap as what you would hear on a bad soap opera. The film is careful to create an atmosphere of mounting dread and these blasts of ham-fisted manipulation threaten to undo it. It's the only concession to TV clichés in the whole film.
The Executioner's Song is one of the best films about crime and punishment ever made. Far from being lurid or simpleminded, it paints a stark picture of how it must have been to live around Gilmore during that time. It doesn't glamorize him or turn him into a cardboard villain, but instead depicts him as a man whose inability to handle his growing rage and alienation led him to destroy his life and the lives of those around him. It's smart enough to know that there can never be a definitive answer as to why someone would commit murder, but that it's also important to try to understand those reasons nonetheless. It's also a vital film whatever your views on the issue of capital punishment, as it renders many clichés on the subject useless (and predates the more acclaimed Dead Man Walking by a good thirteen years). Add one of the finest performances of Tommy Lee Jones' career, and The Executioner's Song is highly recommended for anyone interested in a thoughtful crime drama.
Unlike Gary Gilmore, The Executioner's Song is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Not Rated