The Chamber (1996)

Genres - Crime, Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Courtroom Drama, Family Drama  |   Release Date - Oct 11, 1996 (USA)  |   Run Time - 110 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - R
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Like many screen adaptations of John Grisham novels, The Chamber is a competent but unremarkable piece of pop legal entertainment. Unlike most Grisham flicks, the outcome is genuinely unpredictable -- which makes the film's inability to generate suspense all the more criminal. Chris O'Donnell is the idealistic white bread lawyer du jour, but he's even more of an interchangeable part from Grisham's oeuvre than most. Gene Hackman is flashier as the irascible bigot on death row, but he lacks the seething intensity that made James Woods' similar character so memorable in Ghosts of Mississippi. Both roles would work better if The Chamber established a smooth narrative, a usual strength of Grisham's tight storytelling. But the story has no arc beyond the ominous countdown to execution day, such that unspecific briefs are filed and pleas made without any sense of mounting importance. This gets at an overall lack of purpose in the script, which can't make a strong case for Cayhall's life beyond the standard arguments against the death penalty as an institution. The Chamber hits on some interesting issues when pondering Cayhall's fierce code of silence, or the way his notoriety affects his unwitting offspring. But it gets bogged down in the repetitive tête-à-tête between attorney and client, grandson and grandfather, which serves more as a platform for the actors than a conveyer of thematic insight.