While not quite as unswerving and definitely more “Hollywood” than Tim Robbins’ recent “Dead Man Walking,” Bruce Beresford’s new take on the capital punishment issue, “Last Dance,” is nevertheless a tough, uneasy film. Like “Dead Man Walking,” it is a refreshingly underproduced movie whose simple, methodic build-up of passion and emotion depends exclusively on its lead performances. This is another two-character exercise, one that casts a prisoner on death row with an interested bystander, allowing an intimacy and, eventually, a love to grow between them. The operative word, of course, is “between” because, in movies like “Dead Man Walking” and “Last Dance,” this is the kind of love that can never truly be realized, at least not physically.
As a topical movie, “Last Dance” is likely to be greeted with greater audience success than “Dead Man Walking,” which was definitely a “critics’ picture.” For one thing, unlike Robbins’ film, “Last Dance” doesn’t really strive for any kind of strict balance on the subject matter. Robbins did an amazing job giving equal time to both sides of the issue without really editorializing. Beresford and his screenwriter Ron Koslow also go in that direction somewhat, but there is never any doubt that they are against any kind of state-authorized, premeditated murder as a form of punishment. Audiences prefer to know where filmmakers, like politicians, stand on matters.
Also, the undeniable heart of Beresford’s film is the offbeat love story that is stronger than the one in “Dead Man Walking.” Beresford presents us with two people who, in another situation, could very much get together - and because he and Koslow teasingly hint that, if matters do turn out well for the film’s convicted prisoner, the protagonists will get together. It’s a hokey idea, but it adds decidedly to the film’s suspense.
The result is a capital punishment movie that’s less grim than “Dead Man Walking,” but still effectively disturbing on its own terms.
In this variation, the sexes have been switched. This time, it’s a woman on death row, which affords “Last Dance” the opportunity to speculate on the phenomenon of female murderers vs. male killers. Of the 3,046 people currently on death row in America’s prisons, only 46 are women and, in most of these cases, the motive for murder was passion. According to the film, while men are capable of killing complete strangers, sometimes over nothing important at all, women are more likely to murder someone they know and love - a husband, a lover, a father, a mother or, saddest of all, their children.
Cindy Liggett (played by Sharon Stone), the central character of “Last Dance,” is one of those rare exceptions. She and her male accomplice murdered another couple who was of no significant importance to their lives - something which has confounded the authorities and enraged the people of the Tennessee town where the murders occurred 12 years ago. Left holding the bag by her friend, who cooperated with the authorities and snitched on her, Cindy has sat in a state penitentiary for those 12 years, and a couple of times has come this close to being executed. Like Barbara, the Susan Hayward character in Robert Wise’s “I Want To Live” (1958), Cindy has had numerous stays and false alarms - and false hopes.
The adviser assigned to her during her last few days isn’t a spiritual one, as in “Dead Man Walking,” but a novice with the state Clemency Board - an aging rich kid named Rick Hayes (Rob Morrow), who has been a layabout. This is Rick’s last chance, too. His brother got him the job and expects Rick to do the right thing, not so much for himself but to advance his ambitious brother’s career.
Beresford (“Driving Miss Daisy” and “Tender Mercies”) conjures up a beautiful symmetry between these two flawed people, both in need of some rehabilitation, and the connection puts them through a rushed, bumpy journey that alternates between hope and hopelessness.
Sharon Stone enters the ranks of some of our finest actresses with her performance as Cindy, one so intense - and intensely personal - that she pulls us in and makes even the most uncertain viewer empathetic. As we watch her being bounced back and forth by the system, suffering one agony and disappointment after another and experiencing wild mood swings, we become as worn down and tired as she does.
Rob Morrow (“Quiz Show” and TV’s “Northern Exposure”) seems like a strange casting conceit at first. He doesn’t match up well with Stone. He seems much younger and less experienced than Stone’s character - and he’s a good deal shorter than Stone. Kevin Costner would have been ideal in the role. But the lessthan-ideal Mutt-and-Jeff casting of Stone and Morrow works to the film’s benefit. It may not be ideal but there is something grittily realistic and authentic about this mismatch. (It’s the one thing about the movie that isn’t “Hollywood.”) Stone teamed with Morrow is what makes their film so affecting.
And it is Stone’s swift, angry performance that gives “Last Dance” it’s gnawing sense of urgency. When we find out what was behind Cindy’s vile act, we’re forced to look at her in a different way, the way Rick Hayes does.
Like him, we’ve come to meet Cindy Liggett too late, unnervingly so.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ‘Last Dance’ Locations: Newport, East Sprague and Showboat cinemas. Credits: Directed by Bruce Beresford, starring Sharon Stone, Rob Morrow, Jack Thompson and Peter Gallagher Running time: 1:47 Rating: R