Most movies based on John Grisham books are simple, sanctimonious and self-indulgent, but if nothing else films like The Pelican Brief and The Firm made the hours pass quickly. The same can’t be said of The Chamber, a death penalty drama that nearly bores its audience to, well, death.
Grisham sold the movie rights to The Chamber when it was only an outline for a book. In essence, the producers bought the lawyer-turned-author’s name and hoped he would supply the usual ingredients for success. And so he has, with all the passion of a bored 6-year-old idly connecting the dots.
Adam Hall (Chris O’Donnell) is a recent law school graduate defending his white supremacist grandfather (Gene Hackman) on the death row. As he digs deeper into his family’s past, Adam suspects his grandfather is taking sole responsibility for a crime that the others helped commit.
Director James Foley managed to make a real estate office electrifying in the film version of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, but here he makes death row dull. The Chamber is the kind of movie where the execution countdown must be announced every 10 minutes or so, just to keep the audience awake.
The execution countdown must be announced every 10 minutes or so, just to keep the audience awake.
Though The Chamber is being hyped as Oscar material, the acting is of little help. O’Donnell’s easygoing manner has made him one of Hollywood’s fastest rising stars, but that isn’t a quality that leaps off the screen. Compared with past Grisham prototypes like Matthew McConaughey (A Time to Kill) and Tom Cruise (The Firm), O’Donnell’s Adam Hall is a dud.
As Sam Cayhall, Gene Hackman has the movie’s most problematic role. Grisham has no room for characters unless they are heroes or villains, and Cayhall is neither. As a result neither the movie nor Hackman know what to do with him. One moment he’s spewing racist bile through yellowed teeth, and the next he’s getting misty-eyed over a sunrise (the latter, perhaps, in deference to the Academy Awards).
The supporting work fares even worse. Faye Dunaway plays Cayhall’s daughter, a Southern socialite who tries to hide her family’s hateful past. Hers is the most interesting role in the film, but Dunaway only provides echoes of her Chinatown mystique. And as a governor’s political aide, the talented Lela Rochon is reduced to a plot device.
If The Chamber weren’t so tedious, it would be worth criticizing Grisham’s vain lawyer-hero, his legalistic concept of justice and his use of serious racial issues as little more than emotional panic buttons. But it hardly seems worth the effort. As the moment of execution nears, Cayhall sighs, “I’m tired of waiting.” So are we – for the movie to end.