More than 25 years after Gary Gilmore's death by firing squad in Utah, his name lingers in some dark corner of America's collective consciousness. His was the first execution after a ten-year national moratorium on capitol punishment, and he made headlines by asserting his right and steadfast determination to die. Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song chronicled the end of Gilmore's misbegotten life and located the roots of his murderous rage in years of imprisonment. But Agnieszka Holland's adaptation of the engrossing memoir by journalist Mikal Gilmore, Gary's youngest brother, delves deeply into the haunted life of the Gilmore family and finds a chronicle of death foretold. In the week prior to Gary's (Elias Koteas) execution, the endlessly contentious Gilmores wage one last, bitter battle. Gary's wishes notwithstanding, his mother, Bessie (Amy Madigan), wants to keep her son alive, using a law allowing family members to petition the court independently. Too ill to travel, she sends sons Frank (Lee Tergeson) and Mikal (Giovanni Ribisi) to sign off on the paperwork. But neither Frank nor 26-year-old Mikal — who scarcely knows Gary, since Gary has been incarcerated for the better part of 20 years — is willing to proceed without better understanding why their brother is hell-bent on his own destruction. Mikal's conversations with Gary trigger a series of flashbacks to the Gilmores' life of grifting and drifting, always one step ahead of some dark misdeed in their father's (Sam Shepard) past, bedeviled by stories of malevolent ghosts and religious vengeance recounted by their Mormon mother. Gary's recollections, supplemented by the reticent Frank's (yet another brother, Gaylen, was murdered six years earlier), are a window onto a family Mikal scarcely recognizes: During his childhood the family had settled down, his parents fought less violently, and the endlessly disruptive Gary was largely absent, bouncing from reform school to juvenile detention to jail. Holland's sober film is invigorated by three extraordinary performances: Koteas' Gilmore is charismatic without being likable, while Tergesen (of TV's Oz) invests the underwritten role of Frank, less dangerous than Gary but no less damaged, with remarkable depth. As the brother who always felt like an outsider, grateful that he escaped the poisonous turmoil of his family's early years but disappointed that he was never part of his brothers' close-knit world, Ribisi is painfully intense without being histrionic; pale and shot in shades of gray, he looks as though the Gilmore legacy has bled the life from his prematurely old face.
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- Released: 2001
- Rating: NR
- Review: More than 25 years after Gary Gilmore's death by firing squad in Utah, his name lingers in some dark corner of America's collective consciousness. His was the first execution after a ten-year national moratorium on capitol punishment, and he made headlines… (more)