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Provocative film raises concerns on executions

''The Exonerated," a plea against the death penalty, exudes honesty. It contains only brightly lit actors against a wall of blackness, delivering a series of charged monologues to the camera. Like A.R. Gurney's ''Love Letters," the epistolary play, or like the Scandinavian Dogma films, it eschews the distractions of scenery in order to cut straight to the emotional core of the piece. It asks us to listen to the words closely, to visualize what we're hearing, to steep ourselves in the subjectivity of the characters. During this sparely filmed docudrama, eye candy comes only in the form of angry stares, furrowed brows, and heads shaking in disbelief.

Ironically, the six central characters in ''The Exonerated," which premieres tonight at 9 on Court TV, look as if they're facing hard questioning in ''the box" -- the cold, bare interrogation rooms on cop shows like ''NYPD Blue." In fact, each of them is no longer prey to the justice system, having been freed from death row after years -- in some cases decades -- of wrongful imprisonment. Kerry Max Cook (Aidan Quinn), for instance, spent 22 years awaiting execution for rape and murder until DNA evidence proved his innocence. And Robert Earl Hayes (David Brown Jr.) was released when hair found on his alleged rape and murder victim pointed to another suspect. They've all emerged from an American nightmare, relieved it's over but aware that its spiritual repercussions will never end.

The characters are based on real exonerated prisoners, and everything they say has been lifted from interviews and case files and then shaped into a script (by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, based on their off-Broadway production). Whether the stories exude truth as much as they exude honesty has been a topic of debate, as a few prosecutors have come forward to maintain skepticism about one or two of the freed convicts' innocence. But the controversy does nothing to compromise the intense drama of the movie, or its clear point -- that whether it's moral or not, capital punishment is vulnerable to mistakes. It's hard to imagine watching ''The Exonerated" and not thinking twice about the death penalty.

The most familiar case in the movie is that of Sonia Jacobs (Susan Sarandon), who was convicted with her husband of shooting two officers to death in the 1970s. After 16 years in prison (''You no longer have a name; you're a number," she recalls), she was released after a man altered his original testimony and confessed to the murders. By then, her husband had already been electrocuted -- and particularly cruelly so, when a chair malfunction prolonged the process of death to 13½ minutes. Sarandon plays Jacobs with resignation, resilience, and righteousness. You feel she's survived unbroken. And as her husband, reading a letter to her, Bobby Cannavale is extraordinary in a brief spot.

The performances are all engaging -- passionate, but not annoyingly showy. They bring you through the journeys to hell and back without straining for effect. And that's a good thing, because theatrical movies such as ''The Exonerated" can easily become monotonous and numbingly arty. Quinn is particularly memorable as Cook, who was described in the media as gay during his trial. In his instruction to the jury at Cook's trial, the prosecutor said, ''Let's let all of the freaks and the perverts and the murderous homosexuals of the world know what we do with them in a court of justice, that we take their lives." Quinn is mesmerizing as he dramatizes Cook's story of prison rape and the later death of his brother.

Brian Dennehy is appealingly sympathetic as Gary Gauger, who confessed to the murder of his parents when interrogators convinced him he'd had a blackout. A gang member took responsibility for the crime three years later. And Delroy Lindo is spellbinding as Delbert Tibbs, a former seminary student wrongly convicted of rape and murder. Philosophical, he describes the residue of bitterness about the racist circumstances of his conviction: ''It's a real struggle not to lump all white people [together]." Not surprisingly, race plays a role in a number of the stories. ''I might as well be sitting here wearing a sign that says, 'Arrest me, I'm black,' " says Hayes, recalling the unfairness of his apprehension by police.

Directed and executive produced by Bob Balaban, who also directed the stage production, ''The Exonerated" is not easy viewing. It's wrenching and infuriating, and at times it is stylistically trying. But it's a strong piece of work, one you don't expect to find on Court TV, a cable channel whose trial coverage has had the unfortunate effect of further diluting trial processes with klieg lights. Usually when actors appear on Court TV, they're taking the stand.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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