Chamber, The: Foley’s Version of John Grisham Starring Gene Hackman

John Grisham’s film festival continues with The Chamber, his fifth screen adaptation in three years, an intelligently proficient movie that works more effectively as an emotional family drama than an exciting legal thriller.

While lacking the surface glitz, attention-grabbing plot, and mega-star power of Grisham’s previous films, James Foley’s pic still boasts a brilliant turn from Gene Hackman as a death row inmate and a substantial performance from Chris O’Donnell as the idealistic lawyer who defends him. The Chamber will not break the magic 100 million barrier of A Time to Kill (and most Grisham movies), and it might suffer due to the recent release of Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking.

A critical fog hangs over the initial market share of The Chamber, as it opens in what industry mavens have already called cutthroat weekend–and the toughest Friday this fall–competing aggressively against two other high-profile, star-driven actioners: Paramount’s macho adventure The Ghost and the Darkness, with Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer, and New Line’s big-budget The Long Kiss Goodnight, toplined by Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson.

Adapted to the screen by William Goldman and Chris Reese, The Chamber is framed as a thriller, but it’s basically a three-generational family drama, most of which set in prison, which makes pic refreshingly quieter and more intimate, but perhaps a tad too static and bleak for a potential blockbuster. Question is: Can a character-driven melodrama be as popular as Grisham’s other potboilers, which he himself described as “simple formulas of innocent people caught up in a conspiracy.”

The Chamber poses another query: Can handsome O’Donnell, in what amounts to his biggest challenge to date, carry a movie on his shoulders O’Donnell plays Adam Hall, a committed 26 year-old lawyer who, in effort to confront secrets of his family’s dark past, decides to represent his grandfather, Klansman Sam Cayhall (Hackman). After spending a decade of Mississippi’s death row, Sam is only 28 days away from his impending execution in “the chamber.” A brief flashback reveals Sam’s racist crime in 1967, when a bomb he planted caused the death of two Jewish boys, sons of a civil rights worker.

Despite changes in name, as soon as they meet in prison, Sam recognizes Adam as his own grandson. Relentlessly tough, at first Sam’s sneeringly dismissive toward the educated, neat-looking rookie. Sam refuses to forgive Adam’s father for taking his own life, which for him signaled weakness and failure. That Adam’s father committed suicide out of guilt for inadvertently causing the shooting of a black man by Sam is totally disregarded, as is the fact that Sam’s daughter, Lee (Faye Dunaway), has turned into a troubled alcoholic, also as a result of silently witnessing that murder.

Though solid, the rather simple plot lacks the twists and turns and rich gallery of secondary characters that both The Firm and The Client had. Here Adam is contrasted with McCallister (David Marshall Grant), Mississippi’s ambitious governor, who resurrected Sam’s vicious crimes after two hung juries and finally won a conviction as the state’s D.A. in a successful bid to further his political career. And he’s assisted by Nora Stark (Lela Rochon), the governor’s legal aide, who becomes riskily embroiled in his bold efforts to disclose the truth.

As the days and hours swiftly tick away, Adam uses various legal strategies to win clemency for his grandfather, but each of his desperate battles is lost in the higher courts. Still, secret digging into the commission report confirms that Sam was not alone, and a fierce race begins to unravel the mysterious figure that may have been more directly responsible for the kids’ death. Grisham is obviously intrigued by conspiracies, but here implications about the government involvement in Sam’s repellent crime are left hanging.

Helmer Foley can’t really sustain the momentum of a movie that is more dependent on character than plot, which actually has only two or three revelations, all occurring in the second part of the story. Result is an intermittently engaging movie that has many powerful moments but drags in its mid-section. Still, unlike A Time to Kill, which conveniently avoided a discussion of its most important issue–taking the law into one’s hands–The Chamber is more well-rounded and slightly more substantial than other Grisham outings.

What’s missing in the story department to make it a truly thrilling suspenser is made up for by the intimacy of the interactional scenes and acting. With a nod to Dead Man Walking, pic conveys the gradual repentance of a man who had previously shut off completely his family. Attempt to explain monstrous Sam as a victim of a family with a long KKK history is not exactly convincing, but at least pic doesn’t go for the facile, fake endings of other Grisham movies. Sam’s execution lands the film a downbeat feel, but it’s coherent with the overall tone.

Hackman dominates ever scene he’s in. Shedding 30 pounds, he looks disheveled and rumpled, sporting a credible Southern drawl, all adding to a riveting, highly modulated performance that relies on his noted changeable voice.

Following half a dozen supporting roles, O’Donnell assumes center-stage, rendering a resonant performance that solidly holds the entire narrative together. The sheer thought of Dunaway playing yet another tortured belle might give prospective viewers pause, but the veteran delivers a touching, understated turn that fits in with the other actors; her rapprochement scene with her father, after decades of not seeing each other, is heartbreaking.

Tech credits across the board are fine without calling too much attention to themselves. For the record, with an efficient running time of 111 minutes, The Chamber is the shortest Grisham picture.