Hackman's intensity fills 'The Chamber' Review: Bigoted killer is played with dimensions that broaden Grisham's novel tale.

October 11, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

The Grishamization of the movies continues apace, with this week's new installment derived from the Mississippi attorney-novelist's oeuvre being "The Chamber," which had appeared in bookstores with the emblem "Must be read by June, 1996" stamped on it.

As Grishams go, this one is quite good. The familiar pattern is in evidence: A young, idealistic but naive lawyer confronts an ancient American evil, and does battle royale with it. Perhaps what elevates "The Chamber" over the level of the lamentable "A Time to Kill," the brainless zombie that was "The Pelican Brief" or the merely routine "The Firm" is a sense of ambiguity and an unwillingness to reduce character -- quite -- to cartoon specifications. Or that it finds victory not in storybook triumph but in small mercies of the heart.

Or perhaps that's Gene Hackman's contribution. In any event, his character -- a racist, anti-Semitic murderer named Sam Cayhall -- is the thorny heart of "The Chamber," and Hackman's brilliance in giving us a Sam of flesh and perplexing blood as opposed to blowhard 'toon goober keeps the movie decent.

Cayhall, an avowed racist formed by the cruel crucible of the rural South and a family immersed in Klan politics, has been found guilty, after three trials and two hung juries, of planting a bomb in a Jewish attorney's office that killed his two young sons. The antecedent seems to be Byron de la Beckwith, convicted after three trials and many years of the murder of Medgar Evers. The key moral question: Can there be redemption for the author of such an atrocity? The key tactical question: Can such a blackguard be saved from the moment the capsules liquefy and his lungs explode like an egg left in the microwave too long?

The only one who answers yes to both questions is Adam Hall (Chris O'Donnell), a young Chicago lawyer taking over for the aging liberal lion and anti-capital punishment advocate who had kept Sam out of the chamber for 16 years but whom Sam had just fired. And why does Adam believe? It turns out he's no liberal shrieker or an ambitious kid hot for pub. Rather, he's Sam's grandson, and he wants to probe the man whose crime has haunted his life and drove his own father -- Sam's son -- to suicide at 35.

So in essence the film takes us into two special American hells, one public, one private: the hell of the racist South fixed on preserving white hegemony by any means possible, and the hell of a hater's own dysfunctional family, where his titanic rages and need for violence poisons all who encounter it.

Do not think you know Hackman's Sam at first glance: He's not stupid, he's not lazy, his evil isn't quite so evident. In fact, in prison culture, he's become something of a benevolent figure, who, educating himself in the law, has helped many others -- black and white -- write briefs. He's smart and cunning, and so used to living in the shadow of death, nothing can intimidate him, and he is free to speak the truth as he sees it. His best friend is a black guard (played by Bo Jackson, and yes, that Bo Jackson).

But Sam also has secrets, and young Adam is determined to ferret them out, a journey (fairly easily accomplished, owing to Grisham's lack of real cleverness) through a past many would prefer to keep long buried. Meanwhile, the governor, who reached prominence as the prosecutor who finally got Sam, has promised Adam that if he learns something new that will advance justice, he'll consider commuting the sentence.

After Hackman's, the best performance in the film is from director James Foley, who keeps the film narrowly focused, more detective story than civics lesson, and free of the fat-headed moralizing that characterized the annoying "A Time to Kill." "The Chamber" is lean and smart and intense and Gene Hackman is great.

'The Chamber'

Starring Chris O'Donnell and Gene Hackman

Directed by James Foley

Released by Universal

Rated R (Violence)

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 10/11/96

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