Scripter Robert Eisele introduces complex characters and well-developed scenes as he views the raw life of a fictional convicted killer, Denver Bayliss. With director Kiefer Sutherland himself playing the dismaying Denver, Eisele and Sutherland have unloaded a powerful 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 that what he has to deal with is 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 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 and his sister, played beautifully by Amanda Plummer, have a devastating scene; Whitmore and his wife (Lynne Moody) engage in a well-acted and well-directed confrontation; Whitmore’s son Darrell, played persuasively by Tony T. Johnson, faces his father over his parents’ fight in a touching 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.
Production designer Toby Corbett, using the set from the 1979 film “Escape From Alcatraz” as well as Soledad Prison in Central 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.