Saturday, October 13, 2012

Less is Gilmore: "Shot in the Heart" (2001)

Mikal Gilmore wrote a nonfiction book detailing his family's drawbacks, especially his brother's- infamous murderer Gary Gilmore. The book was fascinating and hard to forget. The film has great merit, but the film makers should have doubled the running time in order to do Gilmore's work justice.

Taking place in 1976, Giovanni Ribisi is the youngest son Mikal. He and his brother Frank Jr. (Lee Tergesen) go to visit their brother Gary (Elias Koteas) in a Utah prison. Gary will be the United States' first execution in a decade, and he is doing nothing to stop it. Gary shot two men in cold blood in Utah, and is completely unapologetic, cashing in on his infamy. Frank and Mikal go to see Gary at the request of their mother Bessie (Amy Madigan), who wants the boys to sign a protest and delay the execution. The book and film's title draws from the family's pain, as well as Gary's choice of execution.

Mikal is not close to his brothers, being the youngest, and the older boys see him as never suffering as much as they suffered at the hands of their mother and father, Frank Sr. (Sam Shepard). Mikal observes the media circus surrounding the coming execution, and meets with writer Lawrence Schiller (Eric Bogosian), who seems to be using Gary to his own gain.

The majority of the film takes place in the prison, with Mikal desperately trying to understand his older brother's murderous intentions, as well as getting to know this brother who spent twenty two years in prison before he died. Frank Jr does not handle the stress well, and disappears, leaving Mikal to deal with Gary alone.

The film is punctuated with childhood memories that are easily defined as dysfunctional. Frank Sr was a horrible man who beat his children, including a brother who died young- the victim of a stabbing. Mother Bessie was not much better. She was wrapped up in a mystical form of Mormonism, seeing ghosts and knowing her family was doomed to fail. Everyone seems to humor the put upon Bessie, who even threatens to slit Frank Sr.'s throat in front of the kids.

As we know, Gilmore is executed, the story covered by the book (by Norman Mailer) and film "The Executioner's Song" with Tommy Lee Jones as Gary. The remaining Gilmore brothers try to get on with their lives, never having children, not chancing a repeat of their father's behavior.

If you get a chance to read Gilmore's book, do so. It is shattering, and difficult to get through because of the pain that is evident on every page. You will feel remorse for these damaged children and adults, and wonder how Mikal seemed to survive and deal with tragedy.

As a film, the story is translated well to the screen. The mystical paranoia surrounding the family is played well without being silly. The few ghost scenes are creepy, but this is not horror. The flashbacks are also kept to a minimum, with the audience getting a sense of the family's pain without numbing to it after violent act upon violent act is recreated. I think this is also a drawback. Gilmore's book is so rich in detail, delving into his parents' lives and uncovering events that had profound and evil influences on both of them. Here, at ninety seven minutes, the film can only touch on these events, and leaves the viewer not "wanting" more, but not understanding what the big deal is. Gilmore's book should have been turned into a four hour mini-series made for pay cable (the film debuted on HBO), where the violence and debauchery could be shown, and more importantly, understood. Gary's horrific reform school days are not touched on, neither is the fourth brother (except briefly).

Holland does many interesting things with her camera. She plays with the actors' placements during dialogue scenes, and keeps her camera moving without taking away the power of the actors. Ribisi is always good in comedy or drama, and he is good here. He is the right age at this time in Mikal's life, and plays well off of his cast members. Lee Tergesen, who I have only seen in comedies, is also good as Frank Jr. The pain on his face is so real, he makes this character seem effortless. Amy Madigan and Sam Shepard are good in their brief flashback roles, and the makeup people age Madigan well without applying two inches of latex to her face. As I wrote, I wish more could have been done in the film, giving Shepard and Madigan more to do. Eric Bogosian, who deserved an Oscar for 1989's "Talk Radio," is good as Lawrence Schiller in an underwritten role. I got the feeling his best scenes are on a cutting room floor, his Schiller appears long enough to ask Mikal some philosophical questions Mikal is asking himself anyway, then disappears. Finally, Elias Koteas. This actor has had a varied career, but so far, his Gary Gilmore is a highlight. He resembles the killer closer than Tommy Lee Jones did, and his performance seems more real. Mikal was there, and his scenes with Gary resonate with a quality that seems eerily realistic. Koteas also makes his pain effortless, and he never screws up or makes a bad move.

I appreciated what the film makers tried to do, capturing the feel of Mikal Gilmore's book. Unfortunately, all they captured was a feel. They never went into the pain, the meat and potatoes of the book, opting instead to get to the surface and nothing more. The actors are not at fault, nor the director, but hopefully deleted scenes, a longer version, or a remake will someday do Mikal Gilmore's words justice.

There is a great story here, a true story that can shake people to their core, and I am still waiting for that story to be filmed. "Shot in the Heart" is fine film making, but stick with the book. (* * * *) out of five stars.