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More Grisham From the Mill

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 11, 1996

The fifth in what threatens to be an unstoppable flood of movies based on John Grisham's novels, "The Chamber" pivots on a legal pup's coming none too subtly of age. And like this summer's "A Time to Kill," this adaptation pits a preppy idealist (Chris O'Donnell) against corruption and lingering racism in the courthouses and statehouses of the Deep South.

Though it lacks the gloss, twists and star power of earlier Grisham movies, "The Chamber" does possess Gene Hackman's most cantankerous turn since the lowdown lawman he created in "Unforgiven." Here he's more honestly villainous but enormously more loathsome as Sam Cayhill, a surly white supremacist convicted of murdering two Jewish children.

With only 28 days to live, Sam is visited by his solemn grandson Adam Hall (overmatched O'Donnell), a law associate whom the evil geezer quickly pegs as a greenhorn. Sam spits out all manner of racist drivel, and condemns Adam's father for his weakness and Adam for his ineptitude. But the youngster is vehemently opposed to the death penalty and obsessed with setting Gramps free. Adam shuffles through paper, falls asleep on the motel room floor, appeals to higher and higher courts and so on.

Adam also visits his aunt (Faye Dunaway), an alcoholic socialite who takes him to see the family's farmhouse, where gothic truths unfold. He and Sam also bond during frequent jailhouse gabfests, and in the end the old coot predictably softens. (Predictably because "Chamber" is following the far superior "Dead Man Walking." What with all the palaver, maybe this one should be "Dead Man Talking.")

The end, which relates to something shifty within the system, is confusing, but that's nothing compared with the film's biggest puzzler: How can Hackman, who played Dunaway's contemporary in "Bonnie and Clyde," now be her father? Answer me that.

The Chamber is rated R for violent images and crude, racist language.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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