It's too new to be called a trend, but it's too revealing to be written off as mere coincidence. Hollywood movies are taking a look at capital punishment, indicating that a subject too incendiary for many politicians to explore - beyond rote sermons on the issue, usually advocating death as a panacea for serious crime - is finding a measure of investigation and analysis through the lens of popular culture.
Such analysis is rarely profound, but it shows that more people are thinking more deeply about this troubling matter than many news reports and stump speeches would suggest.
Exhibit A is "Dead Man Walking," which earned an Academy Award for Susan Sarandon's portrayal of a Roman Catholic nun who befriends a condemned killer in the months before his execution. Exhibit B is the very different "Eye for an Eye," with Sally Field as a vengeful mom who terminates her daughter's killer after a lenient criminal-justice system lets her down. Also relevant is "Aileen Wournos: The Selling of a Serial Killer," a bone-chilling documentary about self-serving interests surrounding a tragic death-row case not long ago.
The newest entry on the list is "Last Dance," a movie so similar to "Dead Man Walking" that a simple title change - "Dead Woman Walking" - would summarize much of the plot.
Sharon Stone plays Cindy Liggett, sentenced to death for murdering two teenagers during a drug-dazed burst of violence. The stranger who takes an interest in her case is a minor functionary from the state government, assigned to petition on her behalf for a commuted sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole. To his surprise, Liggett isn't interested in seeking the governor's mercy. All she has left is the mere fact of being alive, and she intends to dispose of this on her own terms - not those of a judicial system that cares more about policy and procedure than redemption and regeneration.
The young bureaucrat has faced difficulties of his own, however: drug abuse, alcohol problems, a sense of guilt over wasting the advantages he inherited from his privileged family. Despite the huge differences in their backgrounds and personalities, he finds Liggett's situation too compelling to ignore.
Becoming her advocate and companion, he sets about obtaining a commutation regardless of her wishes. But fierce obstacles await him, including the fact that the governor is facing a reelection battle and needs the "tough on crime" image Liggett's execution would conveniently provide.
To be convincing in its arguments, a drama about capital punishment needs to acknowledge more than one side of this highly charged issue. "Eye for an Eye" fails this test dismally, making its murderer such a wildly exaggerated villain that he's impossible to take seriously. By contrast, "Dead Man Walking" shows both the addled criminality and the ineradicable humanity of its death-row inmate, thus making an eloquent case against the cold-blooded extinction of any human life.
"Last Dance" also follows this pattern. Never suggesting that Liggett's guilt is anything but overwhelming, it stresses the awfulness of her crime and allows the parents of her victims to express their grief and resentment in no uncertain terms. Yet the film indicates that the woman who perpetrated this horror has long since gone out of existence. In her place is a mature, penitent individual whose execution would be a moral outrage as well as a ludicrous waste of the resources expended in reforming and rehabilitating her.
Moviegoers are free to balance the terms of this equation in any way they choose, although the filmmakers clearly sympathize with the notion that a lifetime behind bars would be more sensible in both ethical and practical terms than another killing carried out in society's name.
"Last Dance" lapses into Hollywood-style melodrama more than once, especially in its final scenes, which indulge in over-the-top plot twists unworthy of the picture's generally thoughtful treatment of important themes. Some of the blame goes to Ron Koslow's screenplay. The rest goes to director Bruce Beresford, who almost recaptures the emotional complexity of his best films - from the great "Tender Mercies" to the respected "Breaker Morant," which also touched on capital punishment - without quite avoiding the manipulative impulses that have weakened some of his other pictures.
Compensating for this shortcoming are several strong performances, including that of Stone, who follows up her Oscar-nominated work in "Casino" with another forceful portrayal of a problematic character. Capable support comes from Rob Morrow as Liggett's new friend, Peter Gallagher as his crisply professional brother, Randy Quaid as his somewhat suspicious supervisor, and Jack Thompson as the governor who controls Liggett's fate. Their heartfelt acting helps keep "Last Dance" absorbing even when its writer and director occasionally exploit rather than explore the issues their story raises.
*'Last Dance' has an R rating. It contains foul language and scenes of a horrifically violent crime.