1995, Marc Rocco
Based on the true story that led to major reform in Alcatraz prison, Murder in the First takes some dramatic liberties in the telling of the trial of Henri Young, an inmate put on trial for murdering another after being released from three years in solitary confinement. The script by Dan Gordon alters the truth quite a bit in order to make the case more dramatic, more condensed and ultimately more sympathetic to Young (who was far from the innocent saint he’s portrayed as here), so if that’s something that frustrates you when it comes to films based on true stories this may be one to stay away from. I generally don’t have a problem separating the true facts from the exaggerated fiction, though even as a work of fiction I would have had a little trouble with how overwhelmingly unjust this treats the whole situation.
Still, what did occur here was a dangerously immoral corruption of power and Gordon’s script does ultimately present the atrocity in a way that gets that across to the audience, albeit by way of shoving it down their throats a little too aggressively at times. What works the most for Murder in the First is the impressive cast that director Marc Rocco lined up. Christian Slater headlines as the public defender assigned to Henri’s case, and while he’s not the most compelling lead, it’s the supporting cast that really shines. Gary Oldman gives another one of his ’90s grandiose villain displays as the short-tempered and borderline psychotic assistant warden of Alcatraz, while great actors like Embeth Davidtz, William H. Macy and R. Lee Ermey make up the smaller but still integral roles to support the picture.
The best performance though, and the highlight of the entire film, comes from Kevin Bacon as Henri Young. While I may have some problems with the writing of the character, Bacon washes them all away with his heartbreaking and fully realized portrayal of a man who has spent what must seem like a lifetime living in the dark. Alone in solitary confinement, shrouded in darkness and only let out of his tiny hole for thirty minutes a year, the way that Bacon captures the kind of shell-shock that Young experienced is extraordinary. Every tick of this character feels so organic, and Bacon brings such physicality to it that you feel like he could break into pieces at any given moment. Constantly at odds with his whirlwind of emotions, this is a groundbreaking performance from a sorely underrated actor.
While Bacon is certainly the high point of the film, the low point unfortunately comes from the man who has the most control over the final product; director Marc Rocco himself. Murder in the First gives strong credence to the argument that there is such a thing as over-directing a picture. While on paper this is already some incredibly dramatic material, for some reason Rocco feels the need to keep his camera moving at all times, panning around and giving us every unnecessary close-up to capture the emotions that the actors are doing perfectly fine displaying without his added touch. The first half hour of the picture really gave me a headache with how much he felt the need to keep moving at all times.
There’s one scene in particular that really captures this; the first time that Slater’s character goes to see Young in prison, the two of them are inside his cell together and yet instead of just staying with the actors inside the cell, Rocco feels the need to fly the camera all over the place. We go in through the bars to get close to the actors, then we come back outside and pan around the entire cage before going up over it when Young gets nervous and crawls to the other side of the cell. This is just one example of a constant display of Rocco doing nothing but hurting his film in the long run. Murder in the First is a strong story with compelling actors, but the script hurts it a little before Rocco’s direction comes in and delivers a much mightier blow.
Film #250 of The 365 Film Challenge.