Southern Movie 58: “The Chamber” (1996)

1996’s The Chamber is one of the few once-popular Southern movies you’ll rarely (or never) find when you search your favorite streaming service’s listings. (Others include 1982’s Six Pack, 1983’s Stroker Ace, and 1984’s Tank.) A member of the John Grisham cadre of films from the 1990s, this one has a young Chicago lawyer heading to Mississippi to argue the appeal for a Klansman who firebombed a local lawyer and his two children in the 1960s. The twist is that the modern-day defense lawyer is the Klansman’s grandson, long removed from their ancestral heritage in the South. Directed by James Foley (who spent most of the ’80s on Madonna’s music videos and movies) and starring Chris O’Donnell and Gene Hackman, the film pits family member versus family member, North versus South, liberal versus racist, and Yankee versus Southerner, all while asking questions about justice and forgiveness, and exploring how poor and working-class whites could be pawns in larger, more sinister conspiracies.

The Chamber begins in Indianola, Mississippi in 1967. A couple are in bed, about to start their day. The husband offers to take the kids to school, and his wife, still in her nightgown, happily accepts. When they leave, he is dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase. They load into the car, leaving their white-columned, two-story home and heading into the small town’s business district. Everything is friendly enough, with the husband-father waving to people in the streets, and then they pull up to a brick building whose sign announces “Marvin B. Kramer, Attorney at Law.” His young sons have now made their way upstairs and are leaning out the windows shouting at each other— when a bomb blows the front out of the building! Both boys are certainly killed, and as we view the settling smoke, we are seeing the scene from the backside of a Confederate historical marker.

The scene then shifts to Chicago in 1996, where we see a young man (O’Donnell)  on his bed, watching and rewinding news footage from that day, then from the funeral, then from an angry scene outside the courthouse where we see the man arrested for the crime: Sam Cayhall (Hackman). The killer, with his heavy moustache and thick sideburns, is grimacing and serves here as the face of hate. Screaming wildly at him is the father of the boys, who we now understand to be Jewish, as others hold him back.

Next we see our young hero Adam Hall, he is in a suit and sitting in his boss’s corner office at a prestigious law firm. Adam is asking to take the case of Sam Cayhall, but the elder lawyer is against it. Not to be deterred, Adam cites fact after fact about the man and his case, but can’t wear his boss down. Until he confesses that he is Cayhall’s grandson. His name is difference because his parents changed their last name after the killings. His boss is surprised, but not yet convinced. We then learn that Adam’s afther committed suicide the same year as Cayhall’s sentencing. After a bit more coaxing, he reluctantly relents to allow the young lawyer to take on the hopeless death penalty case of an obviously guilty man. He tells Adam, “Don’t say thank you. I haven’t done you a favor.”

In Jackson, Adam arrives at a brick mansion, where two African American valets park his car and an African American maid lets him in the front door. This is the home of his Aunt Lee (Faye Dunaway), who is his only remaining relative in the city, and she is hosting a cocktail party in the middle of the day. Spewing syrupy charm, she wants him to join the party ASAP, since she has procured the last twelve virgins in town to meet him. Adam politely declines, saying that he is there for work and that he will be staying in a hotel. She guesses that he’s there to sue some wealthy fat cat. No, he tells her, he is there to defend her father. Aunt Lee’s demeanor changes drastically into something like silent hysteria, and she hisses at him that he doesn’t understand anything. Further, she insists, he should not breathe a word of his business to anyone.

Once the people (and presumably the dozen virgins) are gone, Aunt Lee and her husband close the door and both glare at Adam, who is standing at the top of the stairs.  Aunt Lee is glaring for personal reasons, and her husband is glaring for his own. Once, Adam and Lee are seated, she intimates that they have little interest in each other beyond social appearances. That’ll all change, “when the world finds out I’m Hitler’s daughter,” she says, mostly to herself. Adam half-heartedly questions the arrangement, inserting a slight against the money and social connections, but she easily brushes him aside. Aunt Lee left home at thirteen, eloped with her husband, and told people that her father was dead, a lie that will soon be true. Adam is offended by the apathy toward his grandfather, so she also warns him that dealing with Sam Cayhall means dealing with a man who “destroyed absolutely everyone who made the mistake of getting close to him.” 

After a very Southern warning about the dangers of unearthing the past, Adam is off to Parchman Prison.  He drives through green field and up to the tall fences and towers. After brief pat-down by Sergeant Clyde Packer, played by Auburn football and baseball great Bo Jackson, Adam is led into the prison, through a series of doors, and into a long, thin room where he will speak to Sam through a wire barrier. When the door unlatches for Sam to enter, everyone jumps, including the inmate mopping the floor. While the unshackling is done, Sam begins, “Who the hell are you?” Adam explains, and Sam makes a surly comment about the Jewish law firm. Adam, who is now facing the man he has pondered for so long, tries to combat his grandfather’s mean commentary, by claiming that they are an Equal Opportunity employer. But the quip is no match for Sam, who rips it apart with a line of questioning about how many women and blacks are partners there. Clearly rattled by losing that round of intellectual sparring and by being forced to admit that this is his first death penalty case, Adam attempts to get to work.

But that first brief ass-kicking was nothing compared to what comes next. As he attempts to lay some groundwork, Sam starts asking him questions about himself and quickly surmises who he is. Adam is dumbstruck, and Sam gnaws on him a bit, calling him out as “the son of a man who blew his brains out.” Sam writes him off and gets up to leave. Flustered by his thwarted attempt at a secret in-road, Adam then goes all out, telling Sam that he’s the only person in the world who cares. Without Adam’s intervention, Sam will be dead in twenty-eight days. This catches Sam’s attention. He turns around and chuckle wryly. 

After getting set up in a downtown office, where he finds out that his presence has made the front page of The Clarion-Ledger, Adam is back in long, divided room with Sam. The elder man is a mixture of blunt honesty, crude racism, and thinly veiled sarcasm. With his unshaven face, squinting eyes, and yellow teeth, he is imposing and in some ways frightening. In their interactions over the basics of the case, Adam is peppered with his grandfather’s complete willingness to take him off guard, intermittently answering his questions and making statements that give him pause. We learn that Sam was tried twice and had two hung juries, but was re-indicted after twelve years and convicted by the man who later became governor. Sam also talks about their generational membership in the Klan, but ultimately, what frazzles Adam is Sam’s insistence that he face his own inner racism. Adam packs up to leave in frustration, and Sam goads him with an example of being cut off in traffic by a black driver. “You don’t think, ‘Well, you darn African-American . . .,” Sam tells him. Quickly, Adam is out the door.

Back in town, Adam is approached in the office by Nora Stark, an aide to the governor— the one who got the conviction against Sam originally. He meets her going into a meeting with the judge about Sam’s case. During the meeting, we find a very John Grisham scenario, where the one-man, good-guy team is outgunned by a whole team on the other side and where the judge is a tad self-righteous and more than a little snarky. So things get set up there, and Adam is led to meet the governor, who is young and energetic. Nora sits with him during the two men’s brief conversation, during which the governor tells Adam that he believes Sam did not act alone. Adam is taken aback by the suggestion, but is given no evidence to support the idea. After a scant few minutes, the governor is called away by other obligations. Adam, confused by the vagaries, has to have it spelled out for him by Nora: the governor could be willing to consider clemency but needs some new evidence that would allow him to dodge any political consequences.

And speaking of consequences, when Adam returns to his hotel room, he hears something. walking across the small room to investigate, he opens a pair of french doors to his bathroom— and there’s a bomb! 4, 3, 2, 1 . . . and a balloon explodes, revealing a note: Welcome to Dixie. Please try and leave everything as you found it. 

At Parchman in the divided room, Adam is livid and scared and is asking Sam what he should do. Sam replies that his mind has been on dying in the gas chamber, not on Adam’s problems, which brings Adam back down to Earth. The two then discuss the legal aspects of the case, and we see once again that Sam is a smart man, not some ignorant redneck. Yet, Adam brings back up the issue of his father, whose suicide affected his life. Sam deflects the efforts at first but then yields, saying that he never laid a hand on Adam’s father as a boy, that he was always weak and sensitive. Then Sam lets something slip: a name, Quince, the black boy that Adam’s father used to play with. Adam latches on, but Sam is having none of it and soon becomes angry, demanding to leave. We’re left to wonder, why is this important, and who was this Quince?

After this tense exchange, Adam is woken up in his hotel room by his boss in Chicago, telling him that his initial motions will be denied. This leads him to contact Nora to ask for help, and their first place to go is meeting an FBI agent who worked the bombing. The agent talks to them as he drives his boat down a lonely river. He is surly and clearly bitter, and he shows little enthusiasm for helping Adam and Nora. Adam wants to know all the facts, but it won’t be so simple.  The main thing that he learns is: Marvin Kramer always came to work at 8:00 AM sharp, and the timer on the bomb was set for 8:00 AM. 

At the bar later, Adam pushes Nora for more information. She first tries to veil her lack of assistance as the way it is in Mississippi, but Adam pushes, including by asking her whether she was assigned to spy on him. Somewhat indignant, Nora asks if he has ever heard of the Sovereignty Commission. He has not. She begins to explain and when she gets to the White Citizens Councils, Adam asks, “What are those?” (I realize that the screenwriters had to do this so the audience cold learn about it, but the idea that Adam knew every detail of Sam’s case, had studied it for years, but didn’t know about either of these of the organizations . . . is absurd.) Nora’s brief historical lesson tells Adam that Sam wasn’t acting alone and that he was likely doing the dirty work for someone else’s decisions. 

So, Adam had to ask Sam to sign a document that would open the files of Sovereignty Commission, which are sealed. Sam says no, that politicians like the governor are just using the two of them to get at those files. Maybe, agrees Adam, but Sam will be executed in twenty days if they can’t win a stay. Sam’s reply is that it won’t happen the way Adam wants, because the people in power just want to go after “my people.” Adam is offended again, saying, “I’m your people.” Sam replies, no, “you ain’t my people. You ain’t never met my real people.”

After this exchange, Adam is back in town, reading another headline, this one about his father’s suicide back when Sam was convicted. He calls his Aunt Lee, who of course wanted all this kept quiet. For whatever reasons, she tells him that if wants to know about the past, then she’ll take him and he’s going to know. Next we see, the pair are in a car going down a rural dirt road that is flanked by farms. Lee is smoking in an agitated way. Adam watches her intently. Then, they arrive at a white farmhouse, where Lee tells the story. They had been children, in the early 1950s, and Adam’s father had a friend named Quince, whose father also did odd jobs around their farm. One day, the two boys started fighting, and Lee saw the whole thing from a tree she liked to climb. During the fight, Sam came out and ran Quince off, but Quince came back with his father. The two men then began to argue, which led to a fight, and Sam beat him with metal rake. Quince’s father called out to get his shotgun, so Sam told Adam’s father to get his. They were at the Cayhall home, so Sam got his gun sooner, and he shot the black man point-blank. Adam asks what they were fighting about. A toy soldier that he thought Quince had stolen, Lee says, but Adam’s father had found it later under his bed. Of course, Sam was not even arrested for killing a man in cold blood. Lee closes out her story by saying that she was responsible for the man’s death too, having not cried out for her father to stop.

Armed with several bits of  new information, Adam returns to the prison to work on Sam’s last minute appeal. As Packer brings Sam into the library where they’ll now meet, he asks Sam about his last meal. Sam says calmly that he wants Eskimo Pies and French Market coffee. Inside the library, Adam wants Sam to share the details to the executions, which happened with Sam close by on death row. Sam tells an awful and vivid story of a fellow inmate being put to death in the gas chamber, with both men realizing that he describing what will soon happen to him as well. After he done, Adam asks how the lever that activated the gas worked. Sam wrinkles his face and says, “How the hell would I know?” He taken Adam’s bait. The young lawyer remarks that Sam has no aptitude for mechanical things, a fact he learned from Lee’s explanation earlier. Sam blows him off; making a bomb isn’t that hard, he says. But Adam keeps on, asking about the placement of the bomb and the length of the fuse . . . he is driving at a point: Sam couldn’t have made the bomb that killed the Kramer children, since — the FBI agent told him — it had a timer. Having the truth fully uncovered, Sam looks back coldly and says, “You have no idea what you’re doing.”

At the capitol, Adam wants help from Nora to get into the Sovereignty Commission files, but it’s no go. So, he ends up back in the prison library with Sam, where he tells his grandfather about their next effort: to plead insanity, based on Sam’s long family history of racism and Klan involvement. At this point, Sam gets angry. He sees it as admitting he’s crazy because he sees the world differently than his liberal son and grandson. Adam tells him that he’ll be dead in fourteen days if they don’t win on some legal point, so Sam agrees. In the next scene, he sits with a psychologist who asks him about whether he feels guilty or has apologized to his victims. Sam says coldly that he doesn’t feel guilt and sees no point in apologizing.

Later, in the hallway, Sam tries to speak to Sergeant Packer about the fact that he speaks so hatefully about black people, but stops short of making a point. Packer quietly says, “I hear ya, Sam.” We see then Packer is letting Sam outside into the yard, and we find out shortly that he wanted to see the sunrise one last time. 

This fact will end up hurting him in court. After Adam has his psychologist to testify that same is “not in touch with reality,” Packer contradicts the claim when questioned by the state. He gives examples of Sam’s humanity and conscience. Though Packer seems to have a fondness for Sam, his honesty about the inmate dooms this appeal.

At this point, The Chamber is about halfway through. Adam is running out of options, and the governor is getting itchy to know what’s happening. After hearing an update from the state’s attorney, he stops Nora in a hallway and wants to know what Adam has been doing. Nora says little, so he pushes, asking if she is sleeping with Adam. No, she replies indignantly. Then what is Adam up to, he wants to know. She conveys that he is trying anything because he is desperate, to which the governor tells her to stay close to him. Maybe you ought to be sleeping with him, he even suggests . . . Now Nora is mad. She has a private conversation with Adam about the Sovereignty Commission files, then coerces a middle-aged man with the keys to the locked storage where the files are. Adam joins her at the elevator, and they set about their mission.

In the records room, they find shelves full of old boxes, then the reach the restricted area. Nora fumbles with the keys so Adam jumps the fence. Among the Sovereignty Commission files, they find notes from Indianola and among the proceedings are Marvin Kramer’s initials, Sam Cayhall’s initials, and the initials RW. Back at Parchman, Adam questions Sam with great directness about who RW is, inserting a lecture about protecting the “cowards” who aren’t there for him in his time of need. Sam then gets really angry, berates Adam as a “loser” like his father, then goes in a tirade against the suicide. He is so wild that the guards come and take him away.

But Adam won’t give up so easily. He goes to see Aunt Lee, who is drinking again, and he finds her stone-drunk on her balcony. She mumbles and fumbles but takes him inside and shows him a picture in a book. It is a lynching, one boy’s face is circled in red with “Daddy” written underneath. Lee screams at Adam, “Go home!” and leaves the room.

He then takes this new knowledge back to Parchman and launches into a now-sullen Sam about not giving up. Sam is ready to give up, though. Adam needs him to talk, and though we don’t get to hear what he says, we next see Adam in court pontificating about “mitigating circumstances” in Sam’s life. Sam was raised to be a Klansman and had no other choice in the world where he existed. The judge listens pensively.

Adam’s next move is surprising. He knocks on an apartment door, and it is answered by Marvin Kramer’s wife. She is much older now. She invites him in, and they talk about the situation with Sam. Both inject their own sentimental anecdotes — hers about her children, who would be about Adam’s age, and his about finding his father after the suicide — but ultimately Mrs Kramer will not yield to Adam’s request that she ask the court for mercy for Sam. No, he must die, she tells him.

Disconsolate, Adam heads back to his little office and is sitting in the dark, when he hears a voice. The light snaps on, and waiting for him is the previously unhelpful FBI agent. He laughs at his shenanigans, getting in, then offers to help Adam. RW is a man named Raleigh Wedge, who has always evaded being charged with his crimes. The agent says that they always knew he was involved, but always managed to shake loose of facing consequences. If Adam wants to find him, the Klan is having a pre-execution rally since they have gathered for Sam’s final days.

Perhaps too boldly, Adam goes to the Klan rally, whose entrance is marked by a Confederate flag. He clearly thinks that his whiteness will serve as cover, but all of a sudden, a group of skinheads grab him. They take him outside and beat him up a little bit, then Raleigh Wedge walks up. Adam at first thinks he has been saved, then realizes who it is. Raleigh puts a gun in his face, but Adam attempts to speak forcefully about honor and truth, so the old racist fires a round off right next to his head. To clear things up, Raleigh picks Adam up, pins him against a wall, and speaks directly about the situation right in Adam’s face. Sam will die soon, and Adam should always be watching his back from now on. When he’s done, Raleigh and the skinheads walk away chuckling.

As The Chamber enters its final quarter, the prison and its staff are preparing for Sam’s execution. He will die in 16 hours as the scene begins. After a quick scene about the prison’s preparations, We see that Lee has come to visit him. They are both very emotional, and she tells him that he has forgiven him for what he did to her and to Adam’s father. She also asks whether he would have shot Joe Lincoln, Quince’s father, if she had called out to stop . . . He says, Yes, that he would have. Lee weeps at being absolved of the responsibility that her brother had told her she bore.

As Sam’s time grows shirt, we see a television news story about his appeals being exhausted, with the exception of the Supreme Court and the governor, who is watching as he eats. At Parchman, Adam goes to Sam’s cell and tells him smugly that he met Raleigh Wedge. Adams bruised face is evident. Sam is silent, so Adam leaves the paperwork to open the Sovereignty Commission files then leaves. Everything remains up in the air.

Within a moment, we see Raleigh Wedge signing into the prison log as “Donnie Cayhall.” It turns out that Raleigh Wedge is a pseudonym for Sam’s brother. They come face to face in the long, divided room where Adam and Sam were first meeting. Sam stalks back and forth on his side, while Donnie/Raleigh lets out a slow, calm rant about the righteousness of bigotry, how Sam has done the right thing. Sam takes it mostly silently, remarking only that they were never supposed to kill anyone, especially not any kids. Then Donnie/Raleigh mentions Adam and his father, calling them weak, and Sam lights up with anger, throws a chair against the divider, and screams at his brother.  We see a change in Sam here.

Back in his cell, Sam is sad and silent when Adam arrives again. Sam gives Adam two letters to deliver: one for Quince Lincoln and one for Mrs. Kramer. Adam is surprised but also disappointed that the paperwork sits where he left it. Then Sam tells him, “There’s one more thing.” Adams looks, and he did sign the paperwork. Adam grabs the phone nearby and gets on his business.

However, this won’t be as simple as Adam might like. He rushes around, and we hear an announcement that a judge is looking at new evidence in Sam’s case. A crowd of neo-Confederates at an outdoor rally cheers. Then, Nora rushes into a meeting that the governor is having with the state’s attorney to tell them the news. The governor tries to brush her off, but she stays and tells them he may want to know whose names will be revealed in the Sovereignty Commission files . . . Once again, the machinations of “justice” work against Sam, as the governor calls his friends in the legislature to concoct a plan.

So, the warden brings Sam his dress clothes and instructs him to be changed within thirty minutes.  Adam and Sam look at each other knowingly, and the governor arrives via helicopter outside. Back inside, Sam says goodbye to some of his fellow inmates, while the governor announces to an assembled crowd that the Supreme Court has rejected all appeals. While he talks, explaining that Sam Cayhall is guilty and will thus receive no clemency. Meanwhile, we see Donnie/Raleigh get arrested in a convenience store. 

During the last scenes, where the procedural portion of the death penalty is shown, Sam and Adam make their peace. Sam tells Adam that he finally feels as though he has done something good in the world, having now known his grandson. They hug briefly then Same is put to death in the gas chamber. Adam does not stay for the execution, but instead is seen running out of the prison down a long gravel road. Outside the prison, the crowds are dispersing, and the governor flies away in his helicopter. As Adam looks around, Aunt Lee is there, waiting. They hug and share a pensive word about a future in the wake of Sam’s death.

At the time of the film’s release, in October 1996, The Clarion-Ledger‘s Billy Watkins shared that the film “was shunned by author John Grisham who sold the movie rights way back when without gaining control over cast and script. His clash with [director] Foley goes back to the original script, which Grisham trashed as not being anything similar to the novel.” My guess would be that more people saw the movie than read the book. That’s kind of how it goes these days.

As a document of the South, this adaptation of The Chamber raises issues within the post-Civil Rights South as the culture moved slowly away from the era of Jim Crow and toward the 21st century. Sam Cayhall is representative of a dying breed of mid-century reactionaries, and his latter-day criminal conviction bears similarities to real cases like Byron de la Beckwith in 1994. The story explores what happens in the wake of these violent incidents, when the racists’ family members try to move on, when societal norms change, and when an irreconcilable past bubbles back to the surface. In The Chamber, we look on the scars of the movement era— but not on those of the victims, where we would normally focus our attention; instead, on the descendants who try to live with the legacy of the perpetrator’s crimes. Sam Cayhall was a destructive force, and the survivors struggle to live with the destruction.

The Chamber also delves into social class issues for poor and working-class whites. Nora’s explanation of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and the White Citizens Council alludes to the real ways that the affluent and middle-class whites, who benefited most from segregation, used lower-class whites to do the “dirty work.” Sam’s character and his belief in “my people” also represents this scenario. It was Sam who helped to plant the bombs, it was he who stayed quiet, and it was he who ended up on death row, all while other collaborators went free from both recognition and punishment. And when the time comes when their names may be revealed, the pawn must be sacrificed to protect them. 

Finally, of course, The Chamber is about the death penalty. The urgency in the plot is driven by Sam’s limited time before being taken to the gas chamber. If there were years for these events to occur, the tension wouldn’t be as . . . well, tense. 

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