In a time when there are more crime-related television series, podcasts, and content than ever before it takes a special kind of story to justify the standalone feature treatment. You need a compelling, original story that revolves around a question or event that viewers must work to understand. The element of surprise must always be present, but hidden just enough that you’re lured into a false sense of comfort. It’s a difficult trick that decidedly few modern filmmakers have been able to master, and director Timothy Woodward Jr. proves he is nowhere near up to the task with his unbelievable awful film, American Violence.
Denise Richards stars as doctor Amanda Tyler, a professor of Criminal Psychology who is hired by an Assistant District Attorney in Texas to review the death sentence of a convicted murderer just 72 hours before his scheduled execution. If you found it hard to believe Richards was a scientist in The World Is Not Enough you will be outright baffled by her casting here. There is not an ounce of dramatic heft to her performance, nor a moment of lightness that tells us she’s not taking things too seriously. What we have here is a star incapable of carrying the weight of the role she has been assigned, and it’s painfully clear this is true from Richards’ first appearance in the story.
The convict Tyler is sent to visit, Jack Shea (Kaiwi Lyman), might as well be a cardboard cutout of every blue collar white criminal with slicked-back bleach blonde hair and a crooked smile ever questioned on Law & Order. His guilt is never up for debate (we see him murder an elderly warden in the film’s opening moments), but for the sake of good PR at a time when the debate is a hot topic the DA has ordered Tyler’s review with the assumption nothing will change. It’s a little like the setup for Silence Of The Lambs, but Woodward Jr. lacks the talent and eye for composition needed to make the psycho-doctor relationship leap from the screen.
In fact, we don’t really spend much time with Richards’ character once the story finds its legs. As Shea begins to tell Tyler his story viewers are presented with flashbacks to a life not so much lived as it was endured. Shea’s childhood was stereotypically tragic; from being molested by his uncle, to seeking revenge, finding a home in a life of crime, being betrayed, and so on. Shea explains it all, including moments he was not even present for (which I know makes no sense, but still—it’s here), while Tyler looks on with a stare that conveys a level of interest just above absolute boredom. You’ll have the same look on your face.
The more we learn about Shea the more American Violence asks us to consider the line between right and wrong as being permanently blurred. We’re supposed to consider the validity of vigilante justice and whether or not there is a limit to what is considered an appropriate response to monstrous behavior. Shea is unquestionably guilty, but have the influencing factors in his life left him with no other choice than to behave the way he has?
These are lofty ideas for any film to tackle, and American Violence possesses neither the script, cast, or director needed to put them to good use. Once the story of Shea’s life becomes the focus one has to wonder why the film even needs the framing device that is Tyler’s interview in order to set things in motion. I imagine there is another version of this script that begins with Shea’s childhood trauma, and as heavy as those opening moments may have been, their presence up front may have made us more empathetic towards Shea’s situation. That said, the uninteresting way every moment of this movie is captured may have still made the experience a bit of a slog, but at least it would have been a few minutes shorter.