Here’s an unusual little movie for you: a made-for-TV true-crime drama starring Robert Mitchum, The Rockford Files’ Stuart Margolin, and a roster of up-and-comers including Eric Stoltz, Amanda Wyss, Catherine Mary Stewart and a guy we like to call James Spader. Shockingly violent for its time, A Killer in the Family wastes no time in getting the main characters into motion and on the road.
Serving two consecutive life sentences for murder, Gary Tison tries to be a good dad to his three sons, Donny (Spader), Ricky (Stoltz) and Ray (James at 15’s Lance Kerwin). He gives them sage advice and is proud of the pre-law student Donny. But he lets slip that it’s dangerous in prison and that his life is in danger from a very large and tough inmate. Not that they should worry about that, though.
It’s not too long before Ray and Ricky hatch a plan to break the old man out of jail, and Donny joins the gang to make sure no one gets hurt on either side of the bust-out. He is the smart one, after all. Coming with them is Gary’s cell-mate Randy Greenawalt, also serving life for murder. The break goes more or less smoothly, dumping the quintet of fugitives into the middle of the desert in a heap of a car. After sustaining a flat, they flag another car down, containing the Lyons family, including their months-old infant. After switching cars, Gary and Randy make the decision to murder the whole family and eliminate the witnesses—much to Donny’s horror.
It’s here that the movie takes a turn from gritty road movie to a grim battle of wills between father and son—but not sons. Ricky and Ray are trapped in inescapable indecision. They love their father, they hate what he’s doing, they’re afraid he’ll kill them, they’re afraid he’ll be killed, they’re afraid to be caught—so they slip simply into “tell me what to do” mode without argument. And it’s clear that Gary wishes Donny would fall into step with them. But not because he wants to keep them safe. Gone is the concerned dad. He didn’t break out with this hardened criminal. Somehow, Gary Tison left the human side of himself back in prison. And when it’s revealed that the threat to his life was just a manipulation, we’re left to wonder, like Donny, if the human side had ever been there.
Experience will tell you that no true crime movie is going to end with hugs and puppies. If you remember anything at all about the Tison crime spree it’s that the old man didn’t get out alive—not that he got what he deserved, either—and that a landmark court case was decided by the Supreme Court in which none other than Sandra Day O’Connor cast the deciding decision that those whose decisions lead to capital murder, even if not by their hands, make them just as culpable for the death penalty, thereby sealing Ricky and Ray’s fate alongside Greenawalt (who was executed, though the boys had their sentences commuted to life in prison). This is all detailed in the film in a post-script, but it’s the central relationship between Gary and Donny that is the most fascinating, largely because so little of it is “on the page” so to speak. There are heated arguments and shouting matches between the characters, to be sure, but so much of the conflict exist in the unspoken interaction between Spader and the veteran Mitchum. A Killer in the Family was for all intents and purposes Spader’s first starring role and it would be another three years before he broke out into leading man status in Tuff Turf, made palatable by him and Robert Downey, Jr., alone. But here in this little TV movie, Spader more than holds his own in scenes with Mitchum—who was not intimidating in real life but never played a character who backed down easily—and you can see so much of the same ice in both actors’ eyes, as if they really were genetically linked.
For that reason alone, A Killer in the Family is worth running down. Fortunately, TCM and Warner Brothers have made it available on DVD-R—a trend I hope catches on but becomes more affordable. The crummy TV-print I watched had jumps and mis-starts and abrupt leaps to commercial break, which doesn’t strike this expert as the best way to see anything.
Is A Killer in the Family a classic? Not really. But it is Mitchum’s most morally-revolting character since Cape Fear (though not as deranged as he was in Night of the Hunter). Richard Heffron’s direction keeps Robert Aller’s screenplay moving along at a good clip. There are no weak links in the acting and it’s nice to see Nightmare on Elm Street’s Amanday Wyss focusing her little eyes in anger again in a small but very important scene that she does her best to own.