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Chamber, The

Kl Studio Classics // R // November 13, 2018
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted January 14, 2019 | E-mail the Author
Attorney Adam Hill (Chris O'Donnell) has chosen his first death row case, and it's a doozy: prevent notorious Klansman Sam Cayhill (Gene Hackman) from going to the gas chamber over the bombing of a law office in 1967 that killed two innocent children. Yet, as surprised as Adam's boss, Mr. Goodman (Robert Prosky) is when Adam asks for the job, he's outright stunned by Adam's reasoning: Sam Cayhill is Adam's grandfather. With Mr. Goodman's reluctant approval, Adam arrives in Mississippi and finds himself facing the heartbreak of his aunt, Lee (Faye Dunaway), the watchful but potentially helpful eye of a governor's aide, Nora (Lela Rochon), and Sam's own ornery distaste for Adam's idealism. With only 28 days left before Sam will be executed, it's up to Adam to break through Sam's stubbornness, re-examine the facts of the case, and work through a series of tragedies and crimes that have haunted his family for decades.

Even when it was released in 1996, The Chamber was designed to test the audience's willingness to at least spend time with (if not necessarily sympathize with) a virulent racist. Viewing the film now in 2019, such a thing becomes even more challenging, especially during violent on-screen riots between people who want to see Sam receive punishment for his own inhumane actions and Klu Klux Klan members waving Confederate flags and dressed in full-blown Nazi uniforms. The film is frequently effective, thanks to a strong cast and a screenplay that was at least partially written by legendary screenwriter William Goldman (RIP) -- more on that later -- but there are also a handful of nagging moments where the film's idealism or simplicity undercut its idea of a message.

For whatever reason, the finished script seems to treat Adam's deeper motivation for trying to fight for his grandfather's freedom as a mystery that needs to be whatever extent it really is. Adam is presented as idealistic, but when he goes to Mississippi, he doesn't seem to have a reason to believe his grandfather is innocent. Over the course of their first few interactions, there's a suggestion that Adam needs emotional closure over his father's suicide when Adam was ten, an act he holds his grandfather responsible for. It's never quite clear why Adam believes helping Sam would provide that closure; perhaps Adam feels that even attempting to help Sam would indicate his loyalty to the law itself over a personal matter, that doing so would be altruistic. However, that still doesn't explain why Adam would take on a case he has no idea if he can win, given his failure would only impact his career. There is also a bit of time given to the idea that the gas chamber itself is so inhumane that Adam thinks that would be a principle worth saving his grandfather's life over, but that quickly goes away when Adam starts to find real holes in the story of what his grandfather is supposed to have done.

The script is credited to Chris Reese in addition to William Goldman, a pseudonym for writer and filmmaker Phil Alden Robinson. Goldman was apparently dissatisfied with changes made to the script and never watched the final product. To Goldman and Robinson's credit, there is never any question as to whether or not Sam is as racist as he's thought to be. A mid-movie reveal, one of the film's more effective threads, firmly cements Sam as a guilty man, even if he isn't guilty of the crime in question. Hackman and Dunaway are especially good in the film, including a dramatically complex scene in the jail where she confronts him, and he lifts some of her emotional weight in a pointedly uncompromising way. At its best, The Chamber gets at the idea of America covering up its history, channeling hatred into boxes that can be more easily digested and understood. At the same time, there's quite a bit of the film's plotting that depends on chance or happenstance, with big shifts in the story occurring by chance or without much effort from the characters themselves, and the film's last 10 minutes finally give way to a bit too much sympathy, essentially providing those boxes for the audience that it had previously been avoiding. It's not a total wash, but even a gloomy version of neat is still neat.

The film was directed by James Foley, who is probably most famous for directing the film adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross (as well as, more recently, the Fifty Shades sequels). Foley's direction is simple, but effective, making use of the grate window in between Hackman and O'Donnell in the early scenes in the jail, and staging the film's two harrowing, fatal incidents with a casual, non-showy effectiveness. Glen Ross felt very much like the play it had originated as, and there is plenty of opportunity for a drama like The Chamber to feel just as trapped, but Foley opens the action up fairly nicely, and lets his actors bring that theatricality to it instead.

The Blu-ray
Kino Lorber presents The Chamber on Blu-ray with its original poster artwork intact, the same one used for the DVD way back in 1998 (!), a moody image with O'Donnell and Hackman's floating heads over a picture of a man on a hill next to a tree looking at a crimson sky. The one-disc release comes in a standard Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 1080p AVC and with a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, Kino has been handed a transfer that is classic Universal...and I don't mean that in a good way. I wouldn't be entirely surprised if the HD video here is the same transfer prepared for that aforementioned 1998 DVD, and it looks accordingly underwhelming. Although many would point to DNR and edge halos as Universal's trademark transfer defects, I'd go with the the way bright lights and highlights behave, glowing unnaturally, with a tilt toward blue and obvious crush inside each glowing surface. Of course, here there's no reason to choose, as the viewer is blessed with all three -- the film looks a little better once it's out of the egregiously ugly optical titles, but not by much. Close-ups can look okay, even if the grain is overly harsh, but this is a pretty ugly transfer through and through. Sound is better, with a reasonable authenticity in replicating environments and capturing the flurry of chaotic crowds and the occasional explosion. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also provided, as well as a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track.

The Extras
None, other than an original theatrical trailer, and additional trailers for The Gingerbread Man, The Package, and The Interpreter, all of which have also been licensed to Kino Lorber.

The Chamber is a thoroughly decent drama, with a portrait of racism in America that has aged less poorly than one might fear, but still has some shortcomings. On the other hand, this Blu-ray of The Chamber is all shortcomings, saddled with underwhelming video provided by Universal and devoid of extras. Due to the Blu-ray's limitations, rent it.

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