“One Kill” demonstrates that even the most traditional telepic source material, executed with sensitivity and intelligence, can provide a show well worth watching. Based on actual events — but then, what isn’t at this point? — there are plenty of tried-and-true formulas at work in this Showtime pic that so easily could have come off tired and false. But a subtle, nuanced teleplay by Shelley Evans, a startlingly good supporting turn from Sam Shepard, and solid work by director Christopher Menaul and leads Anne Heche and Eric Stoltz help “One Kill” stand out as a small but memorably affecting film.
Produced in conjunction with CBS Prods. and to air on the network after its cable window, “One Kill” tells the story of Mary Jane O’Malley (Heche), a Marine officer and single mom who, by the time the film begins, has killed, apparently in self-defense, Maj. Nelson Gray (Shepard) after he broke into her bedroom with a knife in the middle of the night.
The D.A. has declined to press charges, but the military is unwilling to let the death of a much honored Marine go unpunished, and O’Malley must rely on the efforts of her attorney, Capt. Walker Randall (Stoltz), to avoid being railroaded once everyone discovers that she had been having an affair with Gray and had even called him earlier that night. Gradually, in flashback, the fuller story becomes clear.
Some key elements keep it from becoming a predictable woman-in-jeopardy courtroom drama or an injustice-in-the-military morality play. The first is the depiction of Gray, who’s the most sympathetic stalker you’ll ever see on television. In what is probably Shepard’s best work yet, Gray comes off as a man who has clamped down his emotions for most of his life, as a good military man — and trained killer — should. But when he falls for O’Malley, his repressed feelings come gushing out with passionate intemperance.
Evans’ script gives a sense of Gray’s haunted past without going into unnecessary detail, and keeps the focus on Heche’s O’Malley, who has herself been repressing the real emotional effect of having killed a man, no matter how justified her actions may have been. The theme that “one kill” is all that’s needed to change a person forever comes back at just the right moments, giving this film some depth without the pretentiousness that often comes with it.
Director Menaul (“The Passion of Ayn Rand”) keeps the storytelling fluid, and together with editor Henk VanEeghen does a good job of keeping the separation between flashbacks and present-tense stories clear, though they throw in a couple of old-fashioned stylistic touches, some of which work and others — a split screen, for example — which call attention to themselves inappropriately. Tech credits are solid.