Directed by Lawrence Schiller
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 135 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 mono English
MSRP: $ 19.99
Release Date: August 5, 2008
Review Date: August 27, 2008
Norman Mailer’s electrifying book on the life of convicted killer Gary Gilmore makes a rather haphazard transition to television in Lawrence Schiller’s The Executioner’s Song. Strong performances and a sensationalized story aren’t always everything that’s needed to make a hit miniseries. It worked in the case of this one in its original two night-four hour broadcast. This 135-minute Director’s Cut of that material, however, is a more erratic affair.
The movie details the last nine months in the life of Gary Gilmore (Tommy Lee Jones), a recent parolee who finds life on the outside just one frustrating affair after another: petty beefs with the locals where he always seems on the losing side, small thefts from stores that escalate eventually into murder for money so he can buy a truck, sexual dysfunction with his bird-brained girl friend Nicole Baker (Rosanna Arquette). A silly accident with the murder weapon after his second murder is what leads to his capture aided by his cousin Brenda (Christine Lahti) giving information on his whereabouts, and afterwards he demands execution while the courts and the ACLU battle to keep the death penalty from being carried out.
Gilmore seems a true character, alternately charming and funny but also passionlessly brutal when he wants something. Norman Mailer’s screenplay based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning book makes all of the scenes with Gilmore outside of prison interesting gathering up the audience‘s rooting interest in his being able to work his way back into society. Later on, however, at least in the “movie version” of this miniseries, the appeals back and forth to keep the execution from happening get muddled and unfocused. This isn’t helped by Lawrence’s Schiller’s rather stodgy direction, all standard-issue helming that neither burrows under the surface of Gilmore’s hot and cold persona nor enlivening the telling with inventive camerawork to keep the narrative flowing. There are some memorable moments: Gary and Nicole in a tender moment in bed together, the first quiet murder, an almost surreal party sequence prior to the final word about Gary’s fate. But these scenes owe their interest much more to the writing and acting than they do the lethargic direction. Throughout, some original songs by Waylon Jennings spice things up quite a bit, too.
Tommy Lee Jones won an Emmy for his mercurial performance as Gilmore (and against fierce competition: Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons in Brideshead Revisited, Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds), but the actor struggles a bit to subdue his natural Texas accent. He certainly has the obsessiveness and quicksilver anger down pat. Christine Lahti gives a beautifully modulated and understated performance and makes for the film’s most interesting secondary character. Rosanna Arquette is just right as the addled Nicole while Eli Wallach gives another superbly quiet performance as Gary’s Uncle Vern. Grant Gottschall has one very effective scene as Gary’s brother Mikal.
Compared to other hypnotic miniseries of the time like Helter Skelter or Guyana Tragedy, The Executioner’s Song doesn’t quite measure up. The performances are the worthiest components of this spotlight production.
The 1.33:1 aspect ratio of the original television broadcast is reproduced faithfully in this DVD transfer. There are some age related dirt specks, a couple of scratches, and other assorted debris that crop up occasionally. Though color is mostly solid, occasionally flesh tones alter and flatten out, and sharpness, though usually good, is also variable. Blacks can be deep, but details are often overly obscured in the shadows. The film has been divided into 20 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is certainly of its time, clear enough but lacking much fidelity and rather flat. Waylon Jennings’ music does come through loud and clear, however, giving the audio track some much needed spark.
Other than previews on the disc for Dexter - Season 2, the CSI franchise, Twin Peaks, and Criminal Minds, there are no bonus features on the disc.
The Executioner’s Song is worth seeing for an outstanding range of performances and for the unusual story of killer Gary Gilmore. One wonders if the entire miniseries might not have provided a fuller account of the man’s troubled life than this cut-down movie version, but as it’s presented here, it’s at least worth a rental for fans of the actors or those interested in the story.