By Owen Gleiberman
Updated October 18, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT
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When did good actors get so bad at accents? A decade ago, even those who ridiculed Meryl Streep’s obsession with world vocal mannerisms couldn’t deny that she got her Aussie vowels and Polish sibilants down pat. Recently, however, performers have been wearing their accents like toupees that keep sliding off. In Surviving Picasso, Anthony Hopkins speaks in a vague pudding of English and Spanish, and now, in The Chamber, the latest huffy legal thriller from the pen of John Grisham, Gene Hackman never quite settles into his fake redneck drawl. Hackman plays a grizzled Deep South racist, a fourth-generation member of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan. At times, he speaks with mean-varmint gusto, especially when he’s talking about ”Jew bastards” or hurling an epithet like ”son of a bitch” (it comes out ”sombitch”). At other times, he sounds just like…Gene Hackman: light, delicate, the voice of ironic refinement.

Hackman’s Sam Cayhall is a death row inmate who, in 1967, was convicted of bombing the office of a Jewish civil rights lawyer (the bomb mutilated the lawyer and killed his twin boys). Mississippi state officials are all for sending him to the gas chamber. It will make them look tough on racism — and make the terrorism of the Klan seem locked in the past. But Sam has one last defender: his grandson, Adam Hall (Chris O’Donnell), a progressive young lawyer from up North — the two have never met — who believes that Sam is guilty but intends to rescue him from execution. Sam, as you might guess, hates progressive young lawyers (even if they happen to be related to him). Between poisonous rants, he baits his Yankee relative for not having enough women and blacks in his law firm. At times, he sounds like he’s bidding to sit in for John Sununu on Crossfire. But then, it’s no coincidence that Sam’s viciousness comes and goes (usually in cahoots with his now-you-hear-it, now-you-don’t drawl). In The Chamber, the character of Sam Cayhall is a conceit, a bogus concoction — a fellow who’s politically sensitive and racist. And that describes the movie as well.

The most egregious film experience I had this past summer was sitting through the hit version of Grisham’s A Time to Kill. Beneath its languid summer-and-smoke atmosphere, it was a piece of liberal demagoguery that exploited our sympathy for a grieving black father as a way to get us rooting for bloodthirsty vigilante vengeance. It’s creepy, then, to be back so soon with Grisham and the Klan; it’s as if he had a nostalgia for the days when racism was this boldly drawn. The Chamber is the least exciting thriller ever adapted from a Grisham novel. It’s stodgy and bureaucratic, in part because Chris O’Donnell, as the crusading hero, has one facial expression (his eyes glisten with Stepford righteousness), and also because there’s virtually no mystery to uncover. Did Sam, in the fatal bombing, have an accomplice? Did he know when the victim was going to be in his office? As drama, this seems like hairsplitting. But then, the real subject of The Chamber is whether Sam, though guilty, deserves to die. Those of us who are opposed to the death penalty may believe, prima facie, that he doesn’t, but the film’s agenda is far squirmier. In essence, The Chamber argues against putting Sam to death by mounting an apologia for his racism.

Faced with execution, the scraggly, aging bigot finds a tone of quiet remorse. Gazing at his longtime black prison guard (Bo Jackson), he says, ”I want you to know that when I talk about your people…,” his voice trailing off. ”I hear ya, Sam,” comes the reply. Sam, it seems, may hate blacks in the abstract, but deep down he’s a nice guy. In court, Adam, having come to understand his grandfather, explains that Sam may have behaved like a monster, but only because it was what he was taught; he’s a product of a racist culture. Listening, drop-jawed, to this speech, I thought: It’s a good thing this lawyer wasn’t around during the Nuremberg trials. Someone like Sam is certainly the product of a racist culture, but does that change what he did? And how does it make him not responsible — especially when, during a flashback, we see him commit a crime far more cold-blooded than the one for which he was convicted? It’s one thing to reveal the human face of racism. But The Chamber goes so far toward humanizing bigotry it ends up sentimentalizing it. C

The Chamber

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