American Violence (2017): Anti Death Penalty Message? (Review)

Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau as Jackson Shea

Written by Al Lamanda and directed by Timothy Woodward Jr. American Violence can be seen as both a cautionary tale with more than its fair share of tragedy and an anti-death penalty message all rolled into one.

Starring a number of well-known faces, including Bruce Dern, Denise Richards,  Johnny Messner and Patrick Kilpatrick, the film features Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau as Jackson Shea. A man on death row awaiting his execution by lethal injection. 

Richards is psychologist Dr. Amanda Tyler. She has been asked to review the man’s case file to find violent flags. What follows is a journey through Shea’s life.

The entire story borders on a clichéd premise. The young Shea is sexually abused by his uncle, his mother drinks herself to death and after his first stint in prison, Jackson’s convict partner in crime is tortured to death.

American Violence is a tragedy in several acts that approaches the subject matter with an attitude that takes itself a tad too seriously. Shea’s life is interesting but the movie takes too long a look and loses something because of it.

At 107 minutes, the film drags a bit in the middle and could have benefitted from a little less imagery. There are shots in the film that indicate the criminals who inhabit this world are victims. (Pay close attention during the torture scene at the icon on the wall behind Martin Bigg.)

Regardless of the main message that the film projects – that violence begets violence – the underlying theme is that too much violence corrupts as it deadens those who are consistently exposed to it.

All the people in Shea’s life are unpleasant and, no real surprise here, violent. If they are not prone to kill other people they are, at the very least, aggressive and threatening.

Although we are led to believe that the “love of his life” Olivia (whose father is a criminal kingpin) is something special.  The killer’s story is one of a ever deepening spiral into death and revenge that ultimately destroys him even before his execution can be carried out.

Even the legal system in his world is corrupt and full of people who take advantage of their position and power to push others into doing bad things. As the film reveals the story of Shea’s life, it takes great pains to show the convict as both victim and sinner.

There are some solid performances from the actors that fill out the film. Richards may be that bit too serious but it fits the character. Bruce Dern delivers in spades, as usual, and Emma Rigby, as Olivia Rose, satisfies as the femme fatale love interest.

Despite the length of the film and the more obvious stereotypical characters and tropes American Violence is almost compelling. It is hard to be uninterested in Shea’s story as it unfolds via his session with Tyler.

The number of capable actors who interact with Lyman-Mersereau help to sell the story.  At the end of the film we may not agree with the its heavy-handed message but we can at least understand it.

American Violence is a 3 star film that strives to be much more than the sum of all its parts. There are bits that work extremely well however. The lighting, for example, tells us that the very character of Shea is a mixture of light and dark. Just as the framing, and lighting, of Dern’s character reveals that he is not evil but acting naturally given his position.

The film will premiere on February 3, 2017. Check out the trailer below and see what you think.

AMERICAN VIOLENCE – THEATRICAL TRAILER from Status Media & Entertainment on Vimeo.