Looking death in the eye

Preview: `Shot in the Heart' is about a man dealing with his brother's execution.

October 13, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Shot in the Heart, the new made-for-HBO movie from Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, stars Giovanni Ribisi, Elias Koteas and Sam Shepard. But the real stars are death, violence, family secrets and the darker places in the American psyche.

The film, premiering tonight, is intense, and I suspect some will find it grim. But it's the kind of unrelenting, disturbing and enlightening intensity that distinguishes the work of such American dramatists as Eugene O'Neill or Arthur Miller. I'm not saying Shot in the Heart is in a league with their work, but it's closer to their plays than to most of what we think of as made-for-TV movies.

Shot in the Heart is the story of convicted killer Gary Gilmore's (Koteas) campaign for his own execution and the effort by his estranged younger brother, Mikal (Ribisi), to understand that death wish. It's based on the book of the same title by Mikal Gilmore.

In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the moratorium on the death penalty. That same year, Gilmore killed two men in Utah and was sentenced to die. He would be the first person executed in America in a decade. His life, his wish to be executed and his death in January 1977 were chronicled by Norman Mailer in The Executioner's Song.

Shot in the Heart is set in the week leading up to Gilmore's execution; Mikal visits his brother on death row on behalf of their mother, Bessie (Amy Madigan). Only a family member could seek a stay of execution, and Mikal and Bessie Gilmore are considering such action.

The main stage is the visiting room at the Utah prison where Gilmore awaits execution. And it is a stage in every theatrical sense of the word; this is a film rooted in and aspiring to American theater. This isn't surprising, given Fontana's background as a playwright and a script by Frank Pugliese, who wrote for Homicide: Life on the Street.

The staging is brilliant. Credit director Anieszka Holland (Europa, Europa), photographer Jacek Petrycki and Baltimore production designer Vince Peranio. As we enter the prison with Mikal and his brother, Frank Jr. (Lee Tergesen), the shadows, the metal bars and grating, the movement down, down, down as door after metal door clangs shut behind them make viewers feel as if we are moving through descending levels of hell - until we meet the devil himself as Gilmore walks on stage.

Koteas (The Thin Red Line) marvelously plumbs the fullness of the stage, one minute getting so in the face of his younger brother that we feel him sweat, the next shouting insults at the guards standing high above - like someone playing to the balcony. The frail and pale Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan) shrinks deeper into his corduroy sport coat as he studies his brother. It's as if he can feel the chill of death as it approaches.

Gilmore's inner life, and that of the rest of his family, is told in flashbacks going all the way back to 1929 when his mother, then age 11, and her sisters were playing with a Ouija board and believed they conjured the spirit of "a dead Indian." When one sister was killed in a sledding accident the next day, Bessie thought the spirit of that Indian put a curse on her family that resulted in all the death and bitterness that followed.

From the dreamlike staging of that first flashback to the imagery of a riderless white horse and a little girl lying dead in the dust, the sequence resonates back to the frontier, the violence used to conquer it and the scars left on the American soul by that experience. That's how deep this movie will play for those willing to let it in and go with the visual flow.

Much of Shot in the Heart was filmed in Baltimore last year, though the city does not appear as itself in the film. Shot in the Heart premieres at 9 tonight on HBO.

Two new WB sitcoms

Moving from almost-art to near-trash, the WB unveils two new sitcoms tomorrow night: Off Centre is about the romantic lives of two male roommates in their 20s, and the pilot deals entirely with a sexually transmitted disease and how one friend gives it to another. The WB's other offering is about a group of men who walk their dogs in the park and talk about women. As for Men, Women and Dogs: bow-wow. Off Centre airs at 8:30 p.m., while the latter premieres at 9:30 p.m. on WNUV (Channel 54).

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