Judge Bill Gibron is only two degrees removed from the star of this film.
The trial that brought down Alcatraz.
Murder in the First was meant to mark Kevin Bacon's ascension into the ranks of Award Season celebrants. It was supposed to signal a switch from more commercial material (Tremors, Flatliners) to more serious roles (JFK, Apollo 13). While his almost-always-excellent work in front of the camera was undermined by some playful pop culture relevancy (you know, the whole "Six Degrees…" thing), he has yet to find any kind of Oscar love. Golden Globes? Screen Actors Guild? Absolutely. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has never even nominated him. Murder in the First was supposed to change all that. Instead, the film ran into trouble both at the box office and with historians. The tag line inferred that this "based on actual events" story would stir the pot regarding the horrible treatment of prisoners, especially in the penitentiary known as The Rock. In reality, the truth was twisted to meet audience expectations…as was Bacon's chance of acting statue gold.
The story centers on a petty thief named Henri Young (Bacon, National Lampoon's Animal House) who steals $5.00 from a grocery store to feed himself and his destitute sister. Since the building housed a post office, it becomes a Federal offense and he winds up in Leavenworth. Soon transferred to Alcatraz, he comes under the brutal influence of Warden Milton Glenn (Gary Oldman, Sid and Nancy). After an escape attempt fails, Young is placed in "the hole"—solitary confinement—and doesn't come out for nearly three years. After his release back into the general population, he has a psychotic episode and kills a fellow inmate. The D.A. (William H. Macy, Fargo) believes he has an open and shut case for murder, but an idealistic lawyer from Harvard, James Stamphill (Christian Slater, Heathers) believes otherwise. He defends Young on the grounds that the facility forced the crime, the cruel and unusual punishment his client endured causing the eventual act. Both sides gear up for a tense courtroom showdown.
Since it relies heavily on both its heartbreaking set-up and lawyer vs. lawyer logistics, Murder in the First can't help but be preachy. While the real facts surrounding Young would have made his cause far less sympathetic, we still get the feeling of forced injustice throughout. Director Mark Rocco, who got his start with such disposable drek as the Two Coreys' (Haim and Feldman) Dream a Little Dream, does a good job with this often-melodramatic material, making it feel far more deep and important than it really is. He gets to the core of Stamphill's compassion for Young and the pair's eventual class-clash friendship. At the time, the movie was hailed as a hallmark of prisoner rights. It was seen as a statement against brutality and warehousing and as an advocate of positivity and rehabilitation. Of course, none of this flies in 2012, when all we care about is vigilante payback. Any touchy feely foundation for treating convicts with care gets tossed out among the lame left/right talking points.
Still, Rocco remedies the situation by staying strictly within the narrative. All subtext is subtle and slight. Unlike the acting, which can be a bit forced at times, the movie's message stays cautious and considered. As for the cast, Oldman does the most scenery chewing, challenging everyone A Few Good Men-style to dare him into an admission. Similarly, Slater is out of his league, not really looking the part and bringing too much modernity to what is basically a period piece. Bacon, in the other hand, is almost flawless. Yes, he's putting on an affect and we are supposed to see through his psychosis to see a human being, but it is a good performance—perhaps not the Oscar bait many thought it would be, but a nice turn for an actor who has, for nearly four decades, turned out quality stuff. He actually lifts Slater's work to something more than serviceable. Murder in the First may have seen its time come and gone, but it still has impact in small, significant swatches.
Of course, the most important question remains, why would Warner Bros. release the film on Blu-ray in what is, basically, a bare bones presentation? There are some issues with haziness and a lack of detail, but overall, the 1.85:1/1080p image is excellent. The colors are clear and sharp and the overall transfer treats the various moody visuals with care. As for the sound situation, we get a dialogue-friendly DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix which is short on immersion but long on conversational clarity. This is a talky film, and the aural aspects of the format serve the words well. As for added content, Bacon himself steps up for a 12 minute interview featurette which is quite good. He has fond memories of the film and those he worked with. We are also treated to a trailer. That's it.
When you consider the breadth and scope of his career, when you realize how many times he has literally saved a project from being a forgettable mess, it's criminal that Kevin Bacon doesn't have an Oscar nomination, let alone an award. Murder in the First was supposed to be his breakthrough. Instead, it's yet another journeyman gesture from a man who is more than a star.
Not Guilty, because of Bacon.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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