The Chamber

Sam Cayhall (Gene Hackman), a man with the unusual and questionable privilege of being the oldest prisoner on Mississippi's death row, is going to go down that long and lonely corridor toward the finality of the gas chamber blues in 28 days unless his grandson, the young and virginal lawyer Adam Shaw (Chris O'Donnell), can do something about it. Using his wits and every legal strategy he can muster up, Adam pushes ahead, but seems to be going nowhere fast. Along the way he unravels and discovers his family's past and confronts his own grandfather, who happens to be the abovementioned Cayhall, with the past in a way that leads to a new understanding of a selection of various atrocities for which he has been responsible. Naturally, the Klan plays a role in the proceedings. Sam, no matter how you cut it, is a white racist from the old school of burn a cross and pass the ammunition.

Cayhall was condemned for a bombing in 1967 which resulted in the death of two children. (As usual the penal system has given him a very long time to think about his crimes before administering the final death blow.) Adam has come to believe, however, that Sam may be innocent of this particular crime and hopes to prove this by discovering who the real bomber was. Unfortunately, among the many obstacles in his path is the fact that the present governor of the state is David McCallister, a man who built his reputation in earlier days upon the trial and conviction of Cayhall. He now stands as the one man who can grant Cayhall a reprieve. Adam winds up developing a close relationship with McCallister's aide Nora Stark (Lela Rochon) who may or may not have some information that holds a key to winning clemency for the old man. As the history unravels and leads toward the inevitable finale, one cannot help but remember Cayhall's earliest words to the young, attractive and inept advocate, "You don't look like you could save a turkey from Thanksgiving."

Screenwriter William Goldman, who has racked up an admirable score in the past, surprises by the lack of engrossing dialogue this time around, unless we should more appropriately give this credit to co-writer Chris Reese or novelist John Grisham. Perhaps the allure is more a question of being enticed or enchanted by the novels of Grisham himself, a treat which is spared some of us by a lack of interest in this particular genre. The last remarkable courtroom drama of this type that comes to memory was To Kill A Mockingbird and it still surpasses the Grisham blockbusters artistically, no matter how high the box office returns may climb. Nevertheless, large audiences flock to this fare, and you might find yourself among those who delight in this tale. (It will also fill in any space in your schedule left vacant since O.J. and the Menendez bros. have disappeared from your small screen.)

Now that we've had The Firm, The Client, and The Chamber, one wonders what will follow. "The Afterlife" or, possibly, "Final Judgment?"

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett