American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
“Murder in the First" takes place in two worlds. One is cold, gray and artificially lit. The other is as warm as a cedar's dream, all sunlight and furniture polish, brass and tweed. The film is about how a man who lives in one of these worlds might learn to trust a man who lives in the other one. It is a good idea, but the film depends on us believing in the two men, and that isn't easy.
The story unfolds during the same season that Joe DiMaggio was setting his record for hits in consecutive games; that's a favorite year for filmmakers, because it allows them to counterpoint DiMaggio's streak with their own characters' more obscure lives (see, for example, "Farewell, My Lovely"). The plot involves a man named Henri Young (Kevin Bacon) who has been cruelly treated by the California prison system, and a lawyer named James Stampill (Christian Slater) who is appointed to defend him.
Young, originally arrested for stealing $5 to feed his starving little sister, was later kept in solitary confinement for three years, went berserk, killed a guard, and is now being tried for murder. Stampill says the system, not the prisoner, is guilty. As the movie opens, Young has been driven into a tiny corner of his mind by the brutal experience of solitary confinement, and peers out suspiciously at the world. It is Stampill's task to win his trust.
Stampill is a man who is always running. The first time we see him, he's chasing a San Francisco cable car. He's usually late.