There is an unpleasant way in which “The Chamber” and the
previous John Grisham thriller, “A Time to Kill,” linger over the racism and
hate language of their characters. Yes, the racist characters are the villains.
But the ugly things they say linger in the air, there to be admired by anyone
on their wavelength.
subject, including racism, can be the legitimate material of a movie. But I am
not happy when I see deep wounds in our society being opened for the purpose of
entertainment. “The Chamber” is not a serious movie about anything, and so when
characters are allowed to rant at length about their hatred of African
Americans and Jews, repeating the most vile hate clichés, what I get from the
screen is not simply dialogue but the broadcasting of dangerous language.
racially charged language plays a defensible role, as it did in Martin
Scorsese's “Casino,” a thoughtful film that dealt with the tension between
gangsters of Italian and Jewish descent. But in the two Grisham films this
year, I get the queasy feeling that race hate is working like a condiment to
add spice to otherwise unremarkable courtroom stories. That's particularly true
because the villains in each film (played by Kiefer Sutherland in “A Time to
Kill” and Gene Hackman and Raymond Barry in “The Chamber”) are the most
colorful characters, overwhelming the more pedestrian heroes played by Matthew
McConaughey and Chris O'Donnell.
Chamber” tells the story of a young Chicago lawyer named Adam Hall (O'Donnell)
who wants to go down South to handle the final appeal of a murderer on Death
Row. The killer, a Klan member named Cayhall (Hackman), has been convicted of
setting off a bomb in the offices of a Jewish civil rights attorney. The
attorney's two young sons were killed; he was maimed and later committed
suicide. What the movie reveals fairly quickly is that Adam Hall is Cayhall's
grandson. Adam's father also committed suicide--perhaps because of the violent
acts he watched Cayhall perform.
murders took place in the 1960s. Appeals have dragged on for years, but now the
time of execution is near. Adam goes south and discovers old family secrets
from his aunt (Faye Dunaway), who watched years ago as Cayhall shot gunned a
neighboring black man to death. Cayhall quickly discovers who his new attorney
really is, and reacts with a litany of colorful hate language.
have heard all of Cayhall's clichés before, but they have pretty much
disappeared from general use in America, and there will be some younger
audience members hearing them for the first time. How will these words affect
them? In both “A Time to Kill” and “The Chamber,” the Ku Klux Klan, with its
secret meetings and ghostly costumes, is presented in a way that is technically
negative but could seem thrilling. The films portray the Klan as criminal,
racist and anonymous, but those have always been its selling points; it is not
portrayed as boring and stupid.
real subject of “The Chamber” is the family left behind by old Sam Cayhall: his
son, a suicide; his grandson, who dreams of a Death Row miracle; his daughter
(Dunaway), who has married a local banker and says she's “done pretty well for
poor white trash. But when the world finds out I'm Hitler's daughter . . .”
Flashbacks show how Cayhall murdered the father of his son's black playmate,
traumatizing his children and sending remorse spiraling down through the
Cayhall is played by Gene Hackman, an actor who implies decency in his very
bones, we know that he will not go to the gas chamber spouting Klan slogans. If
the film's purpose had been to present an unredeemable villain, they would have
cast Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, M. Emmet Walsh or another actor who can
be read as completely hateful. Hackman is a superb actor, but even in his most
vile moments here, the musical score undermines the effect by sneaking in
feelings of sadness and thoughtfulness. Listen carefully when the grandson tells
Cayhall about a fake bomb in his motel room; the music playing under Cayhall's
reaction gives away the ending.
is sincere and focused as the lawyer, but he is really too young to bring much
more to the role. Since he hates racism, why does he want to defend his
grandfather? Because he hates the death penalty more? Or because he hopes for a
deathbed conversion? The movie's own attitudes toward the death penalty are
confused; Hackman brilliantly delivers a long monologue describing the effect of
poison gas on the system, but then the movie suggests some people may deserve
that very effect.
is also some confusion involving Cayhall's relationship with another
conspirator named Rollie Wedge (Raymond Barry). Without giving away details,
all I can suggest is that Cayhall's loyalty serves the plot, not common sense.
And, given the fact that Cayhall has spent years in prison mouthing the
language of the Klan, it is inexplicable that the movie has a scene in which he
quietly nods a sad farewell to his black fellow inmates on Death Row. I didn't
believe his behavior, and I particularly didn't believe theirs.
the early days of X-rated movies, they were always careful to include something
of “redeeming social significance” to justify their erotic content. Watching “The
Chamber,” I was reminded of that time. The attitudes about African Americans
and Jews here represent the pornography of hate, and although the movie ends by
punishing evil, I got the sinking feeling that, just as with the old sex films,
by the time the ending came around, some members of the audience had already
gotten what they bought their tickets for.