An emotionally deep but sometimes overly dense film, HBO’s “Shot in the Heart” tells the story of executed murderer Gary Gilmore from the point of view of his bother Mikal, who wrote the book upon which this is based. Two crisp, complex leading performances from Giovanni Ribisi and Elias Koteas keep the film grounded despite some visual excesses on the part of director Agnieszka Holland (“Europa Europa,” “The Third Miracle”). The result is a rich portrait of a family burdened by its violent history, and the sympathetic tale of the youngest family member’s need to deal with his brother’s legacy.
In terms of its structure and thematic content, the film is much closer to Tim Robbins’ “Dead Man Walking” than “The Executioner’s Song,” the late-’70s miniseries about Gilmore based on Norman Mailer’s book. Like “Dead Man Walking,” “Shot in the Heart” covers the end of the story as the condemned approaches the date of execution and consists primarily of one-on-one prison visitation scenes.
In this case, the story takes place in Utah in 1976 as Gary Gilmore (Koteas) is about to become the first man executed in the U.S. in 10 years, partly because he has demanded that his lawyers stop all appeals. His brothers, Mikal (Ribisi) and Frank Jr. (Lee Tergeson), are sent by their mother (Amy Madigan) to talk Gary out of it, and if necessary to file for a stay on their own. Long estranged from his much older brother, Mikal finds himself connecting with Gary, and coming to terms with his brother’s desire to go before the firing squad.
The scenes between Ribisi and Koteas (looking every bit like a young De Niro) are exceptionally good, understated and unsentimental. The supporting work from Tergesen, Madigan, Sam Shepard (as Frank Gilmore Sr.) and Eric Bogosian (as writer-entrepreneur Lawrence Schiller) is also consistently strong, never judging the characters but letting them be exactly who they are, which is disturbing enough.
The film, with a screenplay by Frank Pugliese, begins with a flashback that involves a Ouija board and a long-ago family death. The motif that the Gilmore family is cursed returns frequently, and many of the brief flashback sequences involve mother Bessie’s superstitions more than Frank Sr.’s abuse. Holland’s direction and Jacek Petrycki’s cinematography follows suit, investing this story with a bit of a visual heavy hand. The film tries, in a sense, to make the story poetically meaningful rather than powerfully honest, and that gives it an occasionally pretentious feeling.
You also get those hypermeaningful lines like “If you love, you lose”; “You can’t argue with a dead man, he already knows how the story ends”; even a nice Latin phrase meaning “There will always be a father.” Ribisi and Koteas deliver these lines with a minimum of portentousness, making them as convincing as they can be. Holland, however, tends to latch onto the obvious image and force it almost to the point of corniness. When Mikal and Gary meet for the last time, the use of reflection to signal their deep connection is severely overdone, belaboring the very obvious.
Fortunately, Mikal Gilmore’s book, Pugliese’s screenplay and the actors have enough restraint in them to keep some of the visual business of the prison scenes from overwhelming the central relationship. What doesn’t come through with clarity, though, are the Gilmore family revelations. First, Holland and Petrycki throw in some distracting camera movement just as the issue of Gary’s real father is first raised. And next, there’s a problem in the casting (the age difference between Shepard and Madigan is not significant enough) that muddies the presentation even more. Pugliese doesn’t harp on it, but the secret does return with prominence at the end and doesn’t make its full impact.
The piece is ultimately admirable for its lack of easy answers, for its continued sense of emotional confusion. Mikal’s only solution to his family history is never to have children of his own. It’s a disturbing, affecting and strangely satisfying end.