Somewhere down the road, maybe a year or two from now, it may be possible to pass impartial judgment on Last Dance, a death row drama that deserves at least a footnote in the history of bad timing. It comes to us less than six months after the release of Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking, which it resembles in more ways than the producers would care for you to notice. In comparison to its hauntingly powerful predecessor, this high-minded and well-acted drama resembles nothing so much as a sanitized TV-movie knockoff. That it was well into production more than a year ago likely will do little to muffle what threatens to be a chorus of critical disapproval.
And yet, taken on its own terms, Last Dance is not without merit. There is something commendably gutsy in its determination to swim against the current tide of public sentiment about capital punishment. And there is something undeniably satisfying about the way it dramatizes its frankly old-fashioned notions about responsibility and redemption. Better still, the people on both sides of the camera adamantly refuse to take the easy way out. Like the makers of Dead Man Walking, they respect the intelligence of their audience too much to sweeten some very bitter pills.
On the other hand, the makers of Last Dance felt even an intelligent audience might need a little help in warming up to the idea of feeling sympathy for a condemned murderer. And so, instead of an insolent white-trash weasel such as the one played so memorably by Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking, this movie gives us -- no kidding! -- Sharon Stone.
Mind you, this isn't the fatally attractive Sharon Stone of Diabolique or Basic Instinct. No, this Sharon Stone is the meticulously unglamorized, makeup-be-damned Serious Actress who first appeared last year in Casino. As Cindy Liggett, a hard-edged, hollow-eyed convict who's been waiting 12 years for her trip down the last mile, Stone attacks her part with all the tightly concentrated ferocity you'd expect of a red-hot sex symbol who's determined to go legit. (And perhaps even more determined to demonstrate that her Oscar-nominated turn in Casino was no fluke.)
To a large degree, Stone is in a no-win situation here, and she had to have known it. Even as she first read the script, she had to be aware that if she cut loose and went for broke by playing Cindy as a tough, drab looking hard case, she would be accused of Oscar-conscious showboating. And yet if she gave any indication of taking a safer, less all-out approach -- or worse, if she had the temerity to indicate Cindy even thought of lipstick or eyeliner during her 12 years on death row -- she'd be roundly mocked as a glam-queen sight gag more appropriate for Chained Women in Heat.
To her considerable credit, Stone takes the plunge and, for the most part, hits the mark. Her Cindy is a foul-mouthed hard timer who rarely raises reasonable doubt about her guilt. In fact, as a fortuitously decent lawyer (Rob Morrow) labors to save Cindy from her a lethal injection, it quickly becomes very clear, to him and to us, that there will be no last-minute exoneration. The best the lawyer can hope to do is establish extenuating circumstances -- i.e., Cindy was high on angel dust when she brutally murdered a couple during a botched robbery, a fact never brought out at her trial.
Throughout most of the first half of Last Dance, Morrow's Rick Hayes appears to be the real focus. Rick is a tarnished golden boy who drifts back into legal work after leaving the profession under a cloud. (He was involved in some questionable dealings in an attempt to shore up his late father's failing business.) Fortunately, he has a brother, John (Peter Gallagher), who just happens to be the chief of staff for a prominent Southern governor (Jack Thompson). Unfortunately, the only job John can scam for his errant sibling is one with the state's clemency board, a place where political appointees are sent when there's nothing else to do with them.
Sam (Randy Quaid), Rick's new boss, bluntly explains the process: each condemned convict must have his or her case reviewed by a clemency board representative before an execution can take place. The representative may or may not recommend clemency, based on the severity of the original crime, new interviews with the condemned convict and the likelihood of the prisoner's rehabilitation. At least, that's the theory. In practice, Rick says, the governor never approves clemency. To do so would be a serious political miscalculation in a state where the overwhelming majority of voters favor capital punishment. And that's why writing pro-clemency recommendations is the bureaucratic equivalent of Sisyphus' struggle with that bothersome stone.
(Though we never learn the name of the Southern state where Last Dance supposedly takes place, it's worth noting that much of the film was shot in Tennessee -- home of recent Republican presidential hopeful Lamar Alexander, a candidate who made much of his strong support for capital punishment.)
Rick stands a good chance of getting by simply by going along. But wouldn't you know it -- the first time he meets Cindy, he's touched by her sullen resignation in regard to her impending execution. That, along with an inchoate desire to clean up his act and do the right thing, is more than enough to make Rick perform beyond the halfhearted call of duty. He digs deeper into Cindy's case, despite pressure from his brother, lack of interest by his boss -- and the aggressive hostility of Cindy herself.
What happens next is not, to put it charitably, surprising. Rick begins to behave like a born-again idealist, risking his job and any possible future in state politics. In turn, Cindy slowly emerges from her protective shell of surliness, and even dares to hope that, somehow, Rick might at least manage to get her death sentence commuted to life without parole. In the process, Cindy reveals that she's a much better person than she was when she killed two people. But will that be enough to keep from paying the ultimate price for her actions?
At its frequent best, Last Dance raises some intelligent questions about the arbitrariness of state-mandated murder, showing that, sometimes, the difference between life and death can be a competent lawyer, an election-year poll or a savvy PR campaign. (Another condemned prisoner gains clemency by turning himself into a national celebrity. "How," he asks, "they gonna go and kill a man who's been on the New York Times bestseller list?") The film is considerably less impressive when, midway through, it clouds the waters by suggesting that maybe, just maybe, Cindy is actually innocent. For a brief but discomforting stretch, Last Dance appears ready to do in dead earnest what The Player did for laughs and give moviegoers the comfort of a ludicrously upbeat ending. Ultimately, however, reality kicks in.
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The final scenes of Last Dance would likely be a lot more gut-churning if they weren't so similar to scenes played out so recently by Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking. For that matter, there are several scenes that, while convincingly acted and believably written, pale dramatically when compared to scenes that cover the same ground in Tim Robbins' film. Compare Morrow's meetings with the parents of murder victims here to Sarandon's encounters in Dead Man Walking, and you see the difference between well-constructed melodrama and straight-to-the-heart art.
Even so, a well-constructed melodrama can be enthralling when it's directed with as much skill as Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies) brings to this project. The movie also benefits from the work of a strong supporting cast. Gallagher and Thompson bring conviction and authority to thinly written roles, while Quaid has a surprisingly powerful scene in which he discusses the downside of getting too close to a condemned prisoner.
Northern Exposure veteran Rob Morrow is appreciably less cocky here than he was as the gung ho investigator in Quiz Show. That isn't necessarily a good thing -- a bit more edginess and a lot more sibling rivalry might have made his character less noble, but it would also have made him more colorful. Still, Morrow and Stone are adept at establishing and sustaining a relationship that, while entirely platonic, has a subtle but unmistakable erotic undercurrent. Rather than distract the audience from the heart of the story, their unspoken and impossible romance actually brings greater depth and sharper focus to Cindy and Rick. Here are two people who have written themselves off as hopeless cases, who can jump-start their self-esteem only when they join forces in a lost cause. In losing, they win something back. In Cindy's case, the victory comes at the absolute last moment -- just like a governor's reprieve in a more conventional kind of death row drama.
Directed by Bruce Beresford. With Sharon Stone and Rob Morrow.