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Shot In The Heart
cast: Giovanni Ribisi, Elias Koteas, Eric Bogosian, Amy Madigan, and Sam Shepard

director: Agnieszka Holland

96 minutes (15) 2001
High Fliers VHS rental

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by James Starkey
Chronicling the incarceration and eventual execution of American convict Gary Gilmore, this fabulous drama is a true delight from start to finish. Based upon the writings of Gilmore's brother Mikal, director Agnieszka Holland manages to portray both the horror and the humanity of life on death row.
   Convicted of the murder of two men in 1976, Gilmore was one of the first prisoners to be sent to his death immediately after the repealing of laws outlawing execution in the USA. These laws had been in effect for 10 years but growing public unease at rising crime levels resulted in them being scrapped. Unusually, Gilmore made constant demands that he should be allowed to die, despite knowing that a plea from his family would likely reduce his sentence.
   Elias Koteas is excellent as the enigmatic Gilmore. His grasp of the role is total, as is his ability to portray an individual with 'a history'. Long tracts of the movie are given over to his views on those who would seek to incarcerate him. He also re-affirms his right to die to his visiting brother Mikal (Giovanni Ribisi). Ribisi is also highly effective as the frail-looking relation who tries desperately to persuade Gary to rescind his right to be executed. By signing a plea, Mikal can effectively overturn the decision of the court. However, he is unwilling to go against the wishes of his brother who he believes has always resented him for the attention lavished upon Mikal by his late father.
   Holland's portrayal of the family dysfunction at the heart of the story is the true highlight of the movie. Gary's father is portrayed as an authoritarian figure with clear favourites amongst his sons. Unfortunately for him, he certainly was not one. Their arguments were often fierce and violent leading to a gradual divorce over time. Gilmore's mother (played with total assurance by Amy Madigan) reacts with dismay at the constant warring between the two. She however appears also to have favourites amongst her offspring.
   These scenes of conflict are portrayed using that well trusted technique of flashback. One moment the viewer is taking in another desperate plea by Mikal for his brother to reconsider, the next we are watching past events in the Gilmore residence. All of these occurrences are relevant to the overall story and fit together perfectly by the point of conclusion.
   There appears a deeply religious element to this film - especially the importance of religion to the central characters. Gary's mother is often seemingly wracked with fear by her belief that some strange supernatural force will come and take one of her children away. This increases tension between herself and Gary's father, who ridicules these fears.
   As the movie progresses, so to does the convincing display given by Ribisi as, day after day, Mikal returns to his brother's prison cell to try and talk him out of proceeding with the execution. All the while he finds himself at odds with Gary's legal team and the reporters whipped up into frenzy by the publicity of the case. Mikal is suspicious of the lawyers who appear more interested in making money off his brother than aiding him. Gilmore is shown to be a minor celebrity with regular updates about him on national news and phone calls from famous musicians. All this is intolerable to his brother Mikal who realizes that time is slowly running out for his brother.
   It cannot be overstated how well the cut scenes compliment the real-time story being told. Without these, the movie would simply come across as a lurid portrayal of one man's final hours. Instead, what is offered up is a highly personal insight into the tragic effects of family breakdown. Both resentment and jealousy are shown for the terrible emotions that they truly are. Koteas is simply brilliant as Gilmore - peeling away the layers of suspicion and fear that surround his character to reveal what lies beneath. Mikal's attempts to get through to Gary are torturous but compelling. Even more so is the eventual realisation on Gary's part that maybe what he is doing is wrong and that he should choose life. History will show that such a change of heart came too late for this individual.
   Shot In The Heart is essential viewing.

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