Scripter Robert Eisele introduces complex characters and well-developed scenes as he views the raw life of a fictional convicted repeat killer, Denver Bayliss. With director Kiefer Sutherland himself playing the dismaying Denver, Eisele and Sutherland have unloaded a powerful inferential drama that is startling and blunt enough to grab even the jaded.
Denver, in juve hall or prison all his life, has killed enough authorities and other inmates to guarantee his residence on death row.
Ex-cop Fred Whitmore (Forest Whitaker in a moving perf), now a guard on the row, pulls Denver out of solitary and finds what he has to deal with: a man of little hope who’s never had a chance — and wouldn’t know what to do if he had one.
Whitmore holds his own dark secrets, but he’s got a family for some respite. The abusive Lt. McMannis (Clancy Brown) runs the death house, and Whitmore, witnessing how inmates are handled, treats Denver kindlier than he should.
These bare bones of Eisele’s story are augmented by other characters. Denver’s sister, played beautifully by Amanda Plummer, and Denver undergo a devastating scene; Whitmore and his wife (Lynne Moody) engage in a well-acted and well-directed confrontation that’s a beaut; Whitmore’s son Darrell, played persuasively by young Tony T. Johnson, faces his father over his parents’ fight in a touchingly authentic segment.
But it’s Sutherland’s runty Denver who sets the tone for the searing drama, and director Sutherland keeps a steady hand on the situations. Mary McLaglen’s unsparing production moves deliberately toward its inevitable finale, but a bright coda softens the edge. The subject matter and the depiction of an electrocution may be pleas against capital punishment, but Denver’s character doesn’t much help that cause.
Production designer Toby Corbett, using the set from the 1979 film “Escape from Alcatraz” as well as Soledad Prison in Northern California, captures the dingy, frightening feel of death row; Ric Waite’s unsparing camera prowls nooks of the prison as well as aspects of the story.
Steven Weisberg’s well-defined editing paces the worrisome vidpic, and Jude Cole’s score reflects its core. Other tech credits are excellent.