Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Executioner's Song

The Executioner's Song aired over two nights on NBC in 1982, earning an Emmy nomination for Norman Mailer (for scripting the adaptation of his own non-fiction book), and an Emmy win for star Tommy Lee Jones, who played convicted murderer Gary Gilmore. The real Gilmore robbed and shot two people in July of 1976, the same month that the Supreme Court made the death penalty viable again. Gilmore demanded to be executed, and his case became a media sensation, inspiring Saturday Night Live sketches, punk songs, and, of course, the Mailer book and TV movie. The film The Executioner's Song covers that frenzy in brief, but it's primarily a naturalistic character sketch, divided into two parts: the story of the days leading up to Gilmore's crime spree, and the story of the days leading up to the firing squad.


In addition to the TV version, director Lawrence Schiller—a noted photojournalist and the first man on the scene to secure the rights to Gilmore's story—cut together a 135-minute feature-film version for foreign markets, with rougher language, more graphic violence, and more overt sexual content. But the uncut version isn't extraordinarily explicit, and in many ways, the version of The Executioner's Song now on DVD is too betwixt-and-between: not long enough to be a fully realized portrait of a time and place, and not rough enough to deliver the full impact of Gilmore's crimes, or the price he paid for them. Still, Jones is riveting in his breakout role, playing Gilmore as a petulant, easily heartbroken little boy, just looking for a hug. Also strong, early in their careers: Rosanna Arquette as Gilmore's jiggly welfare-queen girlfriend, and Christine Lahti as his disapproving cousin. (After Lahti turns him in to the police, she hardens as she says, "You committed a murder on Monday and a murder on Tuesday… I wasn't about to wait around 'til Wednesday.")

Mostly though, what resonates about The Executioner's Song are the stark Utah landscapes, the twangy country soundtrack, and the way Jones reacts to the string of petty indignities imposed on his character. Gilmore's employers, his creditors, his family, and his friends treat him like an incompetent, harmless screw-up, and it says something about the way he internalizes their disdain that when he finally picks up a gun, he doesn't point it at the ones who hurt him most.

Key features: None.