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Executioner's Song, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Quietly Disturbing Crime Portrait"
5 stars

Probably the best of its kind since Truman Capote's brilliant 'In Cold Blood.'

In the galvanizing TV-docudrama The Executioner's Song Tommy Lee Jones delivers a magnificent star performance as Gary Gilmore, a thirty-five-year-old parolee released from a maximum-security Illinois penitentiary and flies to the rural community of Provo, Utah where his cousin Brenda has agreed for him to be in her custody. Gary's just done a twelve-year stretch for armed robbery, and from the get-go he's amazed how the world's changed (before Brenda picks him up at the airport he amuses himself over the wonder of an automatic-opening doors) and can't get used to his newfound freedoms (he can actually sit at a table and take his time consuming his food where in prison he was given only fifteen minutes in the cafeteria). Unskilled and libidinous, Gary accepts a handout of a job at his uncle Vern's shoe-repair shop and can't get the hang of things, which makes him feel useless; and while fixed up on a date with a decent woman he listens to her without the slightest bit of interest and cuts to the chase in asking her if she wants to go to a motel, which her offended self refuses. Gary oftentimes resembles a teenager with his eager shuffled walk and apprehensive demeanor - being out of jail he thinks he's entitled to whatever the world has to offer, and can't understand there are means to ends: he wants everything without going through the necessary motions (as his date tells him, "You can't have everything in five minutes, Gary, you have to work at it"). Jones previously impressed as the psychologically-damaged Vietnam veteran in Rolling Thunder and as Patsy Kline's abusive, jealous husband in Coal Miner's Daughter, and just the year prior to The Executioner's Song he was relaxed and charming as the grifting has-been boxer opposite Sally Field in Back Roads; here, as the impulsive Gary he's emotionally open and spookily recessive at the same time in that you can never really get a lock on what makes this guy tick. Through a co-worker's acquaintance he hooks up with the gorgeous nineteen-year-old Nicole (Roseanna Arquette), who's been married two times already and supports her two children with governmental assistance, with a disapproving Brenda labeling her a "welfare witch"; Gary is positively smitten, going so far as to tell her she's his guardian angel on their first night together, and she's responsive to him because he puts her up on a pedestal, which she's not used to. However, Gary is impotent and incapable of sexual intercourse, which eventually creates a fissure between them (it's hinted at that his partaking in rape and being the object of rape in prison has sullied him) - her freewheeling self starts openly flirting with other men at get-togethers to spite him, yet she's always there for him when he needs her. This is Arquette's first major role, and she's just as impressive as Jones - there's an open emotionalism to her that's piercing; she doesn't hold anything back, and there's never a solitary moment where she's the least bit unconvincing. Gary and Nicole make a strangely indelible pair, and it's only when his temperamental self slaps her children around during a bitter argument in a car that she starts distancing herself from him; there's a coiled dangerousness to Gary that fascinates and repels Nicole at the same time - his unpredictability appeals to her in some odd way in having her wonder just how their relationship is going to work out, if at all. It's Gary's unbridled sincerity that clinches the deal: she simply can't imagine another man in her lifetime feeling so deeply for her given her checkered history with the opposite sex.

Gary, though, does very little to repress his violent tendencies, and soon he's regressing to his former self and assaulting men on a whim (in a nice touch he's an awful fighter, forever getting whipped), and his sociopathic self partakes in shoplifting cases of beer, trying to sell an arsenal of illegally-acquired guns (though we're never shown how exactly he got them), and cold-bloodedly executing a service-station attendant and then a motel clerk for petty cash to get the money for a white pickup truck from a used-car-lot he badly wants. Not a whole lot of thespians out there would be willing to play someone as innately repugnant as Gary yet also make him compelling, but the game Jones miraculously pulls it off. The Executioner's Song is an adaptation of that eclectic novelist Norman Mailer's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, with Mailer himself responsible for the teleplay, and it manages to be both left-wing and right-wing in the condemnation of America's penal system (an opportunistic lawyer argues the country puts criminals in jail for years but neglects to offer them tutelage on how to adjust to life on the outside) and embracement of the death penalty while getting skittish over objections from the ACLU that paint them in a negative light (Gary maintains his decision to wave all right to appeals and to die via firing squad, which attracts an opportunistic media producer to offer seventy-five-thousand dollars for the rights to his story, a third of which will go to Nicole). This is hard-hitting, uncompromising material, and while one occasionally wishes for more storytelling finesse than the producer/director Lawrence Schiller has bestowed upon it, at least he managed to employ the invaluable services of the Oscar-winning British cinematographer Freddie Francis (he last shot David Lynch's The Elephant Man in scrumptious Panavision widescreen) who gives the lower-class Utah milieu here oodles of enveloping texture, and Schiller's depiction of grungy everyday dailiness registers alarmingly true. Nothing in the movie was filmed on your typical sound stage - the entire thing boasts an unfettered authenticity that helps glide over the narrative gaps and when the editing clanks. (There's a strong indication a good deal of footage was left on the cutting-room floor, which is something of an anomaly in that television productions are usually overseen by budget-conscious martinets of the studio office.) But by and large the The Executioner's Song that has reached us is still thoroughly impressive and affecting from start to finish, with country singer Waylon Jennings's haunting opening and closing song "Defying Gravity" staying with us. Deftly skirting issues in strict black-and-white terms its makers have preferred instead a thought-provoking ambiguity that gives attention to both sides and sidesteps anything of the didactic - treating the viewer like a genuine adult you're given the aesthetic distance to get your own reading on things; it doesn't uncouthly cram things down your throat for the sole sake of easy-to-read sensationalism. Imperfect but intelligent, The Executioner's Song, which boasts a first-rate cast of supporting actors including Christine Lahti (as Brenda) and Eli Wallach (as Vern), might keep you up nights. It possesses a slowly-detonating power that's all but impossible to shake off.

A Blu-Ray with an excellent transfer is available for fans.

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originally posted: 10/29/20 16:29:40
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  28-Nov-1982 (NR)



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