The best of the long-goodbye movies (such as Dead Man Walking and Leaving Las Vegas) bring us inside people who know and accept that they’re going to die. The lesser entries, such as this one, just seem pointlessly manipulative. The Chamber is yet another sincere legal drama based on a novel by John Grisham (the Stephen King of the ’90s), and its hero is yet another idealistic boy lawyer (and boy wonder, with Chris O’Donnell in the role). Watching this legal eagle, who’s actually named Adam (ah, Grisham and his Biblical references), I wondered if Grisham had written his 1994 book in a fit of Tom Cruise worship after seeing 1993’s The Firm. Adam has a dead father (there are enough dead dads in the Cruise portfolio to fill a cemetery) and a mission impossible.
That mission, should Adam choose to accept it, is to keep his racist grandfather Sam (Hackman) out of the gas chamber. Sam is on Death Row for a 1967 bombing that killed two little boys. He is also, as we see (vividly) in a flashback, guilty of outright murder — for which, ironically, he was never arrested. After many pulse-pounding scenes of research, Adam uncovers evidence that Sam may not be completely guilty of the crime he’s slated to die for.
As a Death Row drama, The Chamber gets the big “so what?” from anyone who’s seen Dead Man Walking. As a study of racism handed down through generations (Adam argues that Sam was made into what he is), the movie probes no more deeply than did the average ’50s melodrama like Giant. As a screenplay, it’s often muddled and confusing, with dialogue that rings false as loudly as a church bell. (The culprits are William Goldman and “Chris Reese,” a pseudonym for Field of Dreams writer-director Phil Alden Robinson.)
As a showcase for Gene Hackman, though, the movie just might be worth your time. Hackman specializes in finding the decay that powerful men hide behind affable façades. Here he drops the façade — he’s far from likable as this decrepit old cracker — yet he’s still mesmerizing. In his final scenes, Hackman gives us a man crumbling under the weight of decades of hatred and self-hatred. While Sam fights for his life, Hackman fights the script’s sorry attempts to soften him. Watching Hackman behind bars, I remembered that he was once up for the role of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. I began to envision him as Lecter, and meanwhile the movie I was watching went on without me. The Chamber was directed by James Foley, who proved in At Close Range and Glengarry Glen Ross that he knows how to point a camera at great actors. If only he knew how to make a John Grisham story anything more than a pumped-up TV drama (no director ever has) or how to make Chris O’Donnell interesting (no director ever will).