Here’s another made for HBO movie that clearly aspires for cinematic splendor, circling the actors in dizzying tracking shots. Shot in the Heart overcompensates for the small screen. Since it’s largely told in scenes where death row inmate Gary Gilmore (Elias Koteas) and his younger brother Mikal (Giovanni Ribisi) discuss their family history and right-to-die ethics across the table from each other, such grandiose flourishes ring false. I much preferred the non-flashy functionality of HBO’s recent Conspiracy (the nazi board room meeting to discuss the Final Solution to the ‘Jewish problem,’ starring Kenneth Branagh) because at least it was willing to follow the boxed-in rules of TV conventions. Shot in the Heart feels overcooked.
In the allegory-seeking hands of director Agnieszka Holland (Total Eclipse), no opportunity is resisted for family dinner flashbacks where sinister dad Sam Shepard knocks over the turkey and throws young Gary around the room. Religious fervor is represented through wide-eyed mania in Shepard’s resident madman and Amy Madigan’s Carrie-tinged Mormon mother. More interesting are the prison scenes (shades of Oz), where Ribisi and Koteas are boxed in by walls of glass, steel, and wire frames. Unfortunately, the two ferociously talented lead performers are encouraged to conform to Actor’s Studio emoting – Koteas can’t keep still, Ribisi’s hands are constantly kneading handy props (and, barring that, are continually rubbing away thinly veiled tears).
The central question of whether Mikal will be able to convince Gary to sign a stay of execution feels moot; it feels as though the characters have made up their minds long before the camera rolls. Shot in the Heart therefore feels more like an excuse to present dramatic circumstance. Pump up the volume, and let the screaming begin.