Louisiana sentenced Toni Jo Henry to the electric chair in 1942, making the 26-year-old convicted murderer the only woman in the state’s history to be executed that way. Her story comes to the screen in a plodding feature that makes ample use of the legal record as well as evocative Shreveport locations while leaving the well of affecting drama untapped.
Except for a reliably flavorful turn by John Hawkes, compelling in a few key scenes as Henry’s accomplice, “The Pardon” remains stubbornly uninvolving. Jaime King captures a sympathetic openness in Henry, a former prostitute whose troubled childhood and good looks made her something of a celebrity during two appeals and three trials. The accused’s jail cell takes on a paradoxical homeyness as gifts pour in from strangers. But King’s performance, hampered by the flat screenplay and direction, never digs in deep.
Partnering with Hawkes’ Arkie Burks, a sorry emulator of the notorious Clyde Barrow, Henry embarks on a vague plan to break her husband (Jason Lewis) out of jail. Their scheme ends before it begins, with a brutal killing that director Tom Anton revisits in conflicting versions, all lacking in suspense.
Intriguingly, Anton and cowriter Sandi Russell condense trial transcripts for the court scenes, which pit Henry’s green attorneys (Tim Guinee and Leigh Whannell) against an unsympathetic judge (a sharp Larry Black). The effect is a disquieting look at 1940s jurisprudence. But the more this tale of crime and punishment attempts to milk events for emotional effect — especially in its shift to matters of faith and religious redemption — the more distancing it becomes.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material including disturbing violent images, sexual situations, drug content.
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.
Playing: Arena Cinema, Hollywood.