There are films that confuse excess with honesty -- noisy, unpleasant screeds that believe that the best way to serve the truth is by being as overwrought and in-your-face as possible. Only by rubbing the audience's nose in something unpleasant, the theory goes, can anything worthwhile be done.
This theory is put into irritating practice in "Murder in the First," directed by Marc Rocco from a script by Dan Gordon. If, as these gentlemen insist, inhuman conditions can drive a man to murder, many of this film's viewers will be streaming out of theaters with mayhem on their minds.
Those conditions are located on the rock they call Alcatraz, the island in San Francisco Bay that was a functioning federal prison in 1938 when "Murder" begins with an attempted escape that goes awry. In obviously faked newsreel footage (the first of a stream of unconvincing sequences), we see the convicts being led back inside and prison officials vowing that "rehabilitation" is about to begin.
For escapee Henri Young (Kevin Bacon), rehabilitation takes on a particularly horrific form. Though prison rules forbid solitary confinement for more than 19 days, Young is thrown into a dungeon-like hole for three years. By the time he comes out, he's a twittering basket case who resembles the wild man of Borneo. That escape attempt, it seems, was taken personally by associate warden Milton Glenn (Gary Oldman), a quiet sadist who is not averse to perpetual revenge.
As conveyed through the aesthetics-of-excess lens of director Rocco (whose debut feature was "Where the Day Takes You"), Young's years in solitary are dwelt on in loving, almost masochistic, detail. We see him naked and bloody, scrawling and muttering, his haggard face twitching from perpetual torture. And just in case the point is somehow missed, there is the inevitable shot of his body hung Christ-like against prison bars. Anything worth doing, this film believes, is well worth overdoing.
Not surprisingly, no sooner is Young out of solitary than he goes a little psycho and commits the act that bring him to the attention of attorney James Stamphill (Christian Slater), who has been narrating this little tale in portentous voice-over.
Though a graduate of Harvard Law, Stamphill is languishing in the nether regions of the San Francisco public defender's office when Young's case is handed to him because, in his boss's comforting phrase, "the guy is guilty, a monkey could try it." Fighting words to young Mr. S., a combination of Jimmy Olsen and Jimmy Stewart whose heroes just happen to be Emile Zola and Clarence Darrow.
Though he has trouble getting syllable one out of Young, so spooked by what he's been through that he's turned catatonic, Stamphill throws himself into the case. Helped by co-worker and girlfriend Mary McClassin (Embeth Davidtz), he comes up with an unusual defense, and one that fits perfectly with today's don't-blame-me ideology: It was Alcatraz that turned Henri Young into a bad person. Why, left to his own devices, he might have had a shot at winning a Nobel Prize.
Slater is acceptable as Stamphill, and it is a measure of the emotional heights that "Murder" is pitched at that Gary Oldman as the vile associate warden is the most low-key actor in the ensemble. As to Kevin Bacon's performance as the much-abused Young, it is adept technically and certainly a challenge physically, but its virtues end up being beside the point because the film is so woefully over-manipulative and over-the-top.
Apparently based on a true story, "Murder in the First" turned everyone into a bear for authenticity: Director Rocco spent a weekend in Alcatraz locked up in solitary and Kevin Bacon, according to the press notes, "slept in the dungeon prior to filming to gain a greater understanding of Henri's ordeal." But the more this film makes a fetish of reality, the phonier it ends up seeming. Touches like having Stamphill dressed by Armani have a way of not ringing true, and dialogue references to "a media circus" are plainly anachronistic. And the film's twirling camera work, intended to bring you closer to Young's state of mind, induces only dizziness. The most trying thing about "Murder in the First," however, is that it is convinced it's saying something of significance. Now that really is a crime.
Murder in the First, 1995. R, for strong images of prison brutalities, sexuality and language. A Le Studio Canal+ production, in association with the Wolper Organization, released by Warner Bros. Director Marc Rocco. Producers Mark Frydman, Mark Wolper. Executive producers David L. Wolper, Marc Rocco. Screenplay Dan Gordon. Cinematographer Fred Murphy. Editor Russell Livingstone. Costumes Sylvia Vega Vasques. Music Christopher Young. Production design Kirk Petrucelli. Art director Michael Rizzo. Set decorator Greg Grande. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes. Christian Slater as James Stamphill. Kevin Bacon as Henri Young. Gary Oldman as Associate Warden Glenn. Embeth Davidtz as Mary McClassin. Bill Macy as William McNeil. Stephen Tobolowsky as Mr. Henkin. Brad Dourif as Byron Stamphill.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times