Movie: The Executioner's Song (1982)

ExecutionersSongIn 1976, Gary Gilmore got out of prison in Marion, Illinois, totally unprepared for life as a free man.  He soon went on a senseless killing spree, making little effort to cover his tracks.  He was caught in Utah, convicted and sentenced to die by firing squad.  In 1979, while he was still on death row, Norman Mailer wrote a fictionalized biography of him, especially interested in the fact that Gilmore refused to appeal his sentence (although his brother and the ACLU filed an appeal on his behalf, which made him very angry), and declared himself prepared to die.

I remember thinking at the time that his attitude made sense, since the best he could hope for was life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Sounds worse than death to me, but I guess it depends on who you are.  In fact, it was the scene with his brother where he articulated this.

The pretty girl on the cover of the DVD is Gilmore’s girlfriend Nicole, who also had a huge number of problems and was very unstable emotionally.  Of course, having the man you love on death row would probably unhinge anyone.  Anyway, Gilmore persuaded her to smuggle in a handful of pills, and she had an approximately equal supply.  They both took them, and Nicole seemed to really want to die, but Gary seemed more interested in killing her so she couldn’t sleep with any other man.

The movie was made in 1982, but makes reference to Gilmore spending a lot of time on death row before his execution, so perhaps the execution scene at the end was part of the fictionalizing.  It’s a seriously depressing, but also pretty compelling, movie.  For one thing, Gilmore is played by Tommy Lee Jones, who’s a fine actor, especially when he’s playing bad boys.  Nicole is played by Rosanna Arquette, who’s pretty enough you probably won’t care whether she’s a good actress or not.  She’s playing a pretty screwed up little girl (a welfare mom teenage hooker), so it’s hard to know whether the apparent over-acting is Nicole or Rosanna.  Hookers are naturally actors, after all.

Not too much is made in this movie of the intense ethical and political questions concerning the death penalty, although this was the first execution in Utah since the state had reinstated the death penalty.  There were reporters all over the place, of course, and the obligatory earnest protesters, but the movie seems determined to focus primarily on the fact that Gilmore wanted to die, thus side-stepping most of the ethical issues.  I don’t know whether to recommend the movie or not, but then it took me all these years to get around to seeing it myself, so take that for what it is worth.  I satisfied my curiosity anyway.

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.