In 1976 Gary Gilmore, then 35 years old, was released from prison and moved to Utah to live with his cousin, Brenda Nicol. Although apparently of high intelligence, Gilmore had a lengthy criminal record reaching back to his teenage years and had already spent much of his life in correctional institutions. He was known for drinking to excess and getting into fights, and carried the latter behavior into prison with him: while incarcerated for armed robbery, his behavior was so violent that he was transferred to a federal maximum-security facility, from which he was paroled in 1976.
Gilmore’s life after his 1976 parole is the subject of Lawrence Schiller’s The Executioner’s Song, which originally aired as a television mini-series on NBC. Norman Mailer wrote the script, based on his fictional treatment of the Gilmore case, which won a Pulitzer prize in 1979. I’m not going to spoil the plot by revealing what happens here, but if will say that if you already know what Gilmore made of himself and his freedom, that won’t diminish your enjoyment of this film in the slightest. It’s the kind of film where how the story is told is far more important that the succession of events that make up the plot, and The Executioner’s Song achieves a sort of grim poetic beauty that evokes both the majesty and the bleakness of the wide-open spaces of the American West as well as the long odds faced by those who live on the margins of society.
Reason number one for watching The Executioner’s Song is Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of Gilmore. He was a veteran actor by the time he took on the role, but it still feels like a breakthrough, and when he’s on screen you can’t take your eyes off him. Rosanna Arquette also makes a strong impression as Nicole Baker, a young woman with whom Gilmore has a relationship—she doesn’t have a much to do as Jones, but when they share the screen, she is every bit his equal. Christina Lahti and Eli Wallach are both excellent as, respectively, Gilmore’s cousin Brenda Nicol and uncle Vern Damico, both of whom do the best they can to help him adjust to life outside prison.
The real star of the picture, however, is Freddie Francis’ cinematography, whose career includes extensive credits both for directing (lots of science fiction, including eight films with Peter Cushing) and cinematography (for which he won two Oscars, for Sons and Lovers in 1960 and Glory in 1989). His evocation of the harsh stillness of the Utah plains strikes the right mood for this story, and John Cacavas’s soundtrack is the perfect match to the film’s visuals. When The Executioner’s Song first aired in 1982, as a mini-series on NBC, it may have seemed like a “ripped from the headlines” attempt to dramatize a story everyone was talking about. Today, although the issues behind the story are still relevant, it’s possible to see it more clearly as an art-house movie that happened to air on television, and as a precursor to the bleak, antihero series that are so popular today.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray release includes two versions: the 188-minute version first aired on American television, and a 135-minute “director’s cut” that includes some nudity and violence that was included in the European theatrical release but not aired on American TV. The main extra included is a 7-minute video interview with Rosanna Arquette. | Sarah Boslaugh