Based on a true story, this is a disturbing prison drama about the unlikely relationship between a self-proclaimed reprobate, who may have been America’s first serial killer, and a conscientious guard seeking the man’s redemption. Oliver Stone’s production features top-notch performances by James Woods, as the remorseless criminal, and Robert Sean Leonard, as the liberal guard.
Set in 1929 in Leavenworth Prison, story introduces Henry Lesser (Leonard) at the beginning of his career as a guard with lofty dreams and hopes for prison reform. In jail, he meets Carl Panzram (Woods), a vengeful murderer with animalistic instincts who’s perceived as unreachable and irredeemable.
Henry finds his value system beginning to collapse, and he starts questioning the validity of the penitentiary system. It soon becomes clear that Henry, an educated, liberal Jew, is fascinated with Carl because he’s never met anyone like him before.
The prosaic, earnest nature of some sequences has a TV-movie feel. Still, the acting of the two leads is beyond reproach.
Pic has been given a beautiful production, with a rich, dark, period look enhanced by Ken Kelsch’s sharp lensing that mixes black-and-white and color imagery. Production designer Sherman Williams built a gallows modeled on the actual 1930 architect’s plans.