You meet the nicest folks on death row. In Dead Man Walking, the condemned man played by Sean Penn connects with a compassionate nun played by Susan Sarandon, and she offers him spiritual salvation as a gift of love. In Last Dance, the condemned woman played by Sharon Stone connects with a neophyte lawyer played by Rob Morrow, and he offers her the chance to get her case reviewed one more time — another gift of love. Who knew that death row was such a great pickup scene?
Unlikely attachments aside, though, nothing connects Bruce Beresford’s new drama with Tim Robbins’ recent high-quality production except perhaps the drawl favored by both convicted killers. And even that differs: Robbins’ story, rooted in fact, takes place in Louisiana and the accent is specific; Beresford’s freely drawn fiction (from a screenplay by Ron Koslow) takes place in an unspecified Southern state where the governor is up for reelection as a strong supporter of capital punishment, and dialogue coaching has produced a generic slur.
The Australian Beresford, whose work — Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies — shows a strong interest in moral issues, stacks the deck heavily on this one. Stone’s Cindy Liggett presents a case that’s so easy to challenge (she was a wild girl high on crack when she bashed two teenagers to death during a botched robbery; now she’s a model prisoner who studies drawing by mail), and the greasy machinery of justice is so intent on chewing her up (evidence is withheld, the clemency board is aligned with the governor), that you’d have to be a mollusk not to boo Liggett’s sentence.
Anyhow, that’s not what’s important. The real question to ask in this politically expedient fantasy is whether Stone can do death-row acting. And, in her own fierce-prison-diva way, she can. With her hands jammed defiantly in work clothes, hair dulled to cell-block brown, and head tucked down in a major glower, she mushes her lines like slurped okra (”Ah dew naht wahn dah”) and makes about as believable a bad ol’ girl as is needed for this silly ol’ story. Which is more than can be said for her costar: Morrow’s Rick Hayes (in a haircut that looks like a cross between a Dorothy Hamill wedge and yak horns) is the Porsche-driving, ne’er-do-well son of a wealthy and well-connected family, and to show that he becomes motivated once he meets Cindy, his eyes well up a lot and he strokes her face. Eventually, by the way, he makes his way to the Taj Mahal, either in her honor or because his family has good connections with a travel agent. This clemency board can’t make hide or hair of Rick’s motives. C