The Executioner's Song Lawrence Schiller

A quick glance at Lawrence Schiller’s filmography on IMDB yields a career devoted to movies-of-the-week on true-life crime subjects such as the JonBenet Ramsey murder case and dubious-sounding titles like Marilyn: The Untold Story. By far the most renowned and admired work in his oeuvre is this 1982 TV docudrama based on Norman Mailer’s book of the same title on the life and execution of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, now available on DVD in the director’s cut originally released in theatres overseas. The nudity, swearing and startling violence are not the only things raising the film above the level of standard-issue TV moviedom, however. The haunted feel for the desolate Western landscapes, the uncharacteristically terse screenplay by Mailer and the painfully authentic performances by Eli Wallach, Christine Lahti and Rosanna Arquette all elevate the film to something akin to great cinema. Of course, the film’s towering achievement belongs to its star, Tommy Lee Jones, whose portrayal of Gilmore is one of his truly indelible characterizations. The terse weariness central to Jones’s mature screen persona is already in evidence, modulated by an unsettling childishness. No less than his temperamental outbursts, the way Jones’s Gilmore tentatively navigates the automated doorway at the airport after getting out of prison speaks volumes about his stunted nature, testifying to the subtlety and power of Jones’s acting here. He’s the major reason why the film ranks with great big-screen studies of criminal pathology like 10 Rillington Place and In Cold Blood. This release boasts a fine DVD transfer but the bare-bones packaging does the film a disservice. If there’s a film that can only be enhanced by some historical context, it’s this one. (Paramount)