It's `Judgment Day' for shameless drama

Television: Compelling true story suffers from ham-fisted direction that not even Christine Lahti can overcome.

June 23, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Ellie Nesler's story is as compelling as they come. Too bad the makers of "Judgment Day: The Ellie Nesler Story" don't evince any faith in it.

Nesler is the Sonora, Calif., mother who, during a court proceeding in 1993, shot and killed the camp counselor charged with sodomizing her son. Put on trial for first-degree murder, she became a combination celebrity/folk hero, praised by many for ensuring a child molester would never molest again.

Obviously, this is a story with all the elements needed for compelling drama. But the makers of USA's "Judgment Day," and that primarily means writer-director Stephen Tolkin, treat it as strictly by-the-numbers stuff. They tug shamelessly at viewers' heartstrings, rarely content themselves with making a point once if they can do it a few dozen times, and paint everything with primary colors when a few shades of gray are called for.

But the real shame is, the film wastes a fine performance from Christine Lahti, who with her every appearance these days reinforces her reputation as one of our finest actors. Her portrayal of Nesler as a conflicted, emotionally spent mother who's just bullheaded enough to believe she can do what the law can't is about the only nuanced thing in the film -- and is, save for a supporting appearance by the always-welcome Mary Kay Place, the only reason to watch it.

"Judgment Day" opens with the 1983 courtroom sentencing (shot in black and white, the better to emphasize that this happened a long time ago) of Daniel Driver (Robert Bockstael), who's been found guilty of child molestation. A parade of witnesses take the stand, making it sound as if Driver is more worthy of a Man of the Year award than a jail term, so of course the judge goes easy, giving him three years' probation.

Next thing you know, it's seven years later, and a supposedly rehabilitated Driver is in Sonora, showing up at church and making the acquaintance of Nesler and her family. That includes her 12-year-old son, Brandon (Andrew Ducote), who accepts Driver as a substitute for the father he never sees (dad spends his days tooling around Africa for never-quite-explained reasons).

Against her better judgment, Nesler agrees to let Brandon go to a Christian day camp. For, as a psychiatrist will later explain, she's a "hyper-vigilant" mother, extremely wary of letting her children do anything without her.

Too bad she didn't listen to her instincts. For it's there that the molestation begins, a trauma that turns Brandon moody and aloof. Worse, Driver's threatened to kill his mom and his sister if he ever tells anyone.

Eventually, he breaks down and tells his Aunt Jan (Place, wonderful as always). And thus begins the inexorable drive toward the story's tragic end. Nesler's first instinct is to shield Brandon; she initially even refuses to let him talk to the police. But when it becomes clear his testimony in court is the only thing that may put Driver away, she changes her attitude. Her son doesn't want to testify and gets violently ill at the prospect, but Nesler resolves to toughen him up and get him through the process, one way or the other.

Oh, if only Tolkin had trusted his audience to grasp the tragedy inherent in this story. But no, in case we miss the point, we're subjected to a sequence where the judge, deciding Nesler's fate, imagines Brandon and his sister staring forlornly at him; to a ham-fisted D.A. who, while questioning Brandon, exhibits about as much compassion as a cactus; and to an embarrassingly over-the-top performance by a pony-tailed Barry Corbin ("Northern Exposure") as Nesler's defense attorney, who does everything short of wielding a Bible and pounding a pulpit in exhorting the jury to believe his client was temporarily insane when she shot Driver.

Tolkin also has the maddening habit of tossing out little story threads, then pretty much ignoring them. Nesler's real-life drug use -- she had been taking methamphetamines, or crank, around the time of the shooting -- was a key issue during the trial but is barely mentioned here (probably because it decreased public sympathy for her). And Driver's bereaved mother shows up a handful of times, but only to sob profusely at her son's fate. Their relationship is never examined, so why is she even brought into the film?

Thank goodness for Lahti, whose hard-edged but never over-the-edge performance gives "Judgment Day" a lot more artistry than the film deserves.

TV movie

What: "Judgment Day: The Ellie Nesler Story"

When: 9 p.m.-11 p.m.

Where: USA cable channel

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