The Chamber

(James Foley, USA, 1996)


Movies adapted from the potboilers of John Grisham constitute a fearsome territory where very few serious reviewers dare to tread. These films (The Firm [1993], The Client [1994]) are sheer, instantly forgettable pap. But the audience of people who enjoyed the novels and want to see the screen versions is assured, no matter what dudes like me say.

On the Grisham conveyor belt, The Chamber is – as per usual – a lousy film. Its popcorn quality comes from the killing fact that, on the dramatic plane, it resembles a banal telemovie, albeit with handsome production values. But not even the once dazzling director James Foley (Reckless [1984]) can invest any energy or subtlety into this formulaic dirge.

Social and political issues become the mere pretext for supposedly thrilling plot moves in a Grisham-derived film. Here, as in the dire Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), the key issue is white supremacism. Unlovely old Sam (Gene Hackman) is on trial for murderous racial crimes. Green young lawyer Adam (Chris O’Donnell) takes on the unpopular job of defending Sam – a task further complicated by his own family’s past ties with racism and its ugly consequences.

Much of the film is devoted to sessions, staged through a prison grill, between Sam and Adam. At first Sam comes on like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991): the mad genius who instantly intuits and preys upon Adam’s every Achilles heel. Soon he modulates into an older version of Sean Penn’s character in Dead Man Walking (1995): the ambiguous "bad guy" who is perhaps worthy of some redemption.

Whatever happened to the abundant inspiration behind brilliant courtroom dramas like Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959)? Almost all ambiguities of law, ethics, truth and performance have been expunged from contemporary exercises in this genre. The courtroom action is minimal, pared away for the sake of the hero’s dreary journey of self-discovery as he explores his family’s past.

The actors cannot save this doomed project. O’Donnell is a bland leading man who projects little drive, charisma or inner torment. Hackman puts in a listless performance, far from the complex heights of villainy he achieved in Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). And Faye Dunaway has a thankless role as Adam’s Aunt Lee in the pale melodrama of personal identity that takes up far too much of the film’s running time.

MORE Foley: The Corruptor, Fear, Glengarry Glen Ross At Close Range

© Adrian Martin May 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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