Tuesday, July 10, 2007

“Murder in the First”

Starring Kevin Bacon, Christian Slater and Gary Oldman
Director: Marc Rocco

This is one of the most painful movies I have ever watched so let’s just get this over with right off the bat. Now let me be clear, this movie is a beautiful piece of work. It’s the subject, the story line, that makes it difficult to watch.

Based on actual events, “Murder in the First” is the story of Henri Young, played by Kevin Bacon, who, at the age of 17, was convicted of a Federal crime for stealing $5 to feed his starving younger sister. Henri was sent to Alcatraz and after a failed escape attempt is placed in solitary confinement and subjected to the rehabilitation methods of Associate Warden Milton Glenn, played by Gary Oldman.

Henri remains in solitary confinement in the dungeons of Alcatraz for three years and two months. There is no light in his cell. There is little room for him to move around in the cell. There is no plumbing. For three years and two months Henri lives cramped in total darkness with foul food, no bed, no clothes and only the occasional blanket. From time to time the guards do allow Henri a shower – in the form of a bucket of icy water, thrown on him as he sleeps.

Henri is allowed out of his dungeon for brief periods. Once every year he is allowed 30 minutes of exercise in the prison yard. And, of course, let’s not forget his visits with Associate Warden Glenn. Visits that generally consist of Henri being hung by his arms from the ceiling while Warden Glenn administers “rehabilitative treatments” in the form of vicious beatings.

Henri is released from solitary confinement after three long years of torture and deprivation and within one hour of his return to the general prison population he is goaded into murdering the fellow prisoner who alerted the guards to his escape attempt three years earlier.

Henri is charged with first degree murder and Attornery James Stamphill, played by Christian Slater, fresh out of law school and brand new to the Public Defender’s office, is assigned to defend him. With the zeal and compassion found only in young, not-yet-jaded lawyers, Stamphill sets out to discover why, after a life completely free of violence, Henri suddenly committed murder in front of hundreds of witnesses. What he uncovers will place the Warden, the Associate Warden and the very institution of Alcatraz on trial for crimes against humanity.

The details are often gruesome, the story is heartbreaking. As I said, this is a very difficult film to watch, made more so by the fact that it is based on a true story.

Make no mistake about it, this is Kevin Bacon’s movie. His performance is astounding. His transformation into a scarred, crazed and frightened victim of power-gone-mad is complete. He draws you in and shares his pain with you. It is not a pleasant experience.

Christian Slater, as the young, compassionate James Stamphill, is also wonderful. Slater's protrayal of a zealous young attorney who is at first determined to "save" his wronged client and then humbled by the realization that what he wants for his client is, in reality, not what his client wants and may not even be the best thing for his client, is truly believable. And his scene with Warden Glenn on the witness stand is one for the books, folks. Slater holds his own with Oldman and turns it into one of the best scenes in the film.

And then there’s Gary Oldman, playing Associate Warden Milton Glenn, the Head Monster in this real-life monster movie. And as we’ve come to expect, he is brilliant. So brilliant that I hated him – detested the very sight of his smug, self-righteous face. I think if I had come face-to-face with Gary Oldman after my first viewing of this film I would have spit in his face - or slugged him – or both. Yes, he was that good.

In fact, I think Mr. Oldman may have given his character more depth that the real Milton Glenn actually had. From the loving, doting father and husband, to the fawning Associate of Warden Humson, to the brutal, self-righteous monster who terrorized prisoners and guards alike, he gives a performance that becomes almost too real.

The character of Associate Warden Glenn doesn’t get much on-camera time in this two-hour film and every glimpse we get of him has to connect. If Glenn doesn’t make an impact on us in his brief appearances the fate of Henri Young will not be near as affecting – or near as believable. As usual, Oldman meets this challenge and then some.

I read a comment somewhere, might have been on an IMDB forum, and it kills me that I can’t find it again. It gives a real indication of the affect Oldman’s performance had on people. The comment was something to the effect that Gary Oldman got so into his role that he had to be forcefully pulled off of Kevin Bacon while filming one of the scenes where Glenn is beating Young. Sorry, I’m not buying that one unless I hear it from Gary Oldman, himself. Still, this comment does show how deeply the viewer is pulled into the character of Milton Glenn, how real Oldman makes him for us.

Should you see this movie, if you haven't already, or should you see it again?


Yes, it's painful to watch. Yes, it will leave you with residual feelings of anger and helplessness, sadness and regret. But you will never regret seeing these brilliant performances. And while the complete authenticity of the story has been called into question many times, it is also a little bit of history; something to point out how far we really have come in our society - no matter that we still have a long way to go.

You can sometimes catch "Murder in the First" on a cable movie network, like Encore, but don't expect to find it on regular TV. There are too many adult situations, language, nudity, etc., for it to make it to TNT or USA. I suggest you check it out at Blockbuster or Netflix - or buy a copy on Amazon.


Huey said...

At least you admitted that this was Kevin Bacon's movie. This is one of my favorites of his.

And I have to agree (yes, I know, you will never let me forget this) if Oldman's character hadn't been strongly enough portrayed, Bacon's character would not have been nearly as convincing.

The Willow said...

Well, I am completely blown away that you are agreeing that Gary Oldman did a good job. I think there's hope for you yet, Huey. :-D

And oh yes, this was definitely Bacon's movie. He was fantastic!