Writer and director Stephen Tolkin juggles a dramatic hot potato with the story of Ellie Nesler, a California mother who shot and killed her son's molester in 1990. One of the few true stories worthy of TV movie treatment, Tolkin flubs his chance at thought-provoking social commentary by creating a new strain of sensationalized storytelling.</

Writer and director Stephen Tolkin juggles a dramatic hot potato with the story of Ellie Nesler, a California mother who shot and killed her son’s molester in 1990. One of the few true stories worthy of TV movie treatment, Tolkin flubs his chance at thought-provoking social commentary by creating a new strain of sensationalized storytelling.

Tolkin mistakenly tries to convey complicated emotions about God, guns and justice through gimmicky camera work, including mock documentary segments and pointed editorializing, generating a schizophrenic telepic that plays the morality card from just about every character’s perspective.

Still, a meaty story like Nesler’s, even poorly told, has voyeuristic appeal, especially when the true case that it is based upon has become fodder for public debate. An earnest and gritty performance by Lahti also contributes to the film’s innate “What would you do” appeal.

Pic covers 14 years of events in a distracting hodgepodge fashion to lay the psychological foundation as to what would make a seemingly rational woman pull out a gun and shoot a man down in a courtroom filled with police officers. The knee-jerk response, as chronicled here, is that Nesler is a hero for trying to protect her abused son. The real story is far from that simple.

Nesler is portrayed as neither a hero nor a criminal, but a woman of many incongruities who was deluded into believing that killing Daniel Driver, the man who molested her son, was what society expected of her. Whether or not Nesler was temporarily insane is debatable, but what Tolkin and the producers manage to successfully convey is the number of lives ruined by this case and the rabid nature of a public hungry for a sense of justice for all the evil done in this world.

As Nesler, Lahti is strikingly realistic, shedding any kind of Hollywood glamour to play this conflicted and flawed human being. Her confessional scene in the police interrogation room, based on actual transcripts, is the movie’s emotional centerpiece.

Robert Bockstael as Driver, a clever manipulator of people who hid his perversion behind a Bible, is appropriately menacing and sleazy.

Andrew Ducote as Brandon Nesler and Mary Kay Place as Nesler’s sister Jan also give believable performances; however, Barry Corbin’s ridiculously distracting wig just about precludes any evaluation of his performance as Nesler’s lawyer.

Technical credits are standard.

Judgment Day: The Ellie Nesler Story

USA Network; Wed. June 23; 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed on location in Los Angeles and Toronto by Jaffe/Braunstein Films Ltd. in association with USA Pictures. Executive producers, David Steinberg, Howard Braunstein, Michael Jaffe; producers, Daryle Ann Lindley, Susan Murdoch; director, Stephen Tolkin; writer Stephen Tolkin; editor, Stephen Lawrence; camera, Mike Fash; music, William Richter; casting, Shana Landsburg, Tina Gerussi. 120 MIN.

Cast

Ellie Nesler - Christine Lahti Jan Martinez - Mary Kay Place Brandon Nesler - Andrew Ducote Daniel Driver - Robert Bockstael Jack Griffin - John Bourgeois Jo Graves - Diana Reis Judge Polley - David Hemblen Tony Serra - Barry Corbin District attorney - Ralph Small Becky Nesler - Lillian Cummings
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