The Lone Star State has become known for a few things: cowboys, oil, football, and death. The state of Texas leads the country in the number of executions performed on a yearly basis since George W. Bush set the record with one hundred and fifty-two more in his six year term as Governor than any other in recent history. That is also the same state that finds it bemusing to have a roadhouse diner that advertises the "killer burger" on its menu right across the street from one such "death house." Granted there is much debate over the death penalty nowadays: some believe in the "an eye for an eye" theory while others feel one cannot use "two wrongs to make a right," but IFC's new documentary, At The Death House Door, works to answer both theories by offering a deeply personal look at a controversial, and more importantly, universal, subject.
While neither director Peter Gilbert nor Steve James-- nor their co-producers at the Chicago Tribune, publicly admit they wanted their film to take a firm stance one way or another on the death penalty (but instead to merely open up the discussion further), At Death House Door's main subject, retired Reverend Carroll Pickett, clearly states his case time and again within the documentary in such an emotional way it would be nearly impossible for the audience not to emphasize with him. In that way, the filmmakers let Pickett do their dirty work for them; they sit back and allow his sober voice to lead the revolution, echoing how unlawful and cruel murder in the name of "justice" can be.
At The Death House Door is one-part profile on Pickett himself and one part profile on Carlos De Luna, an inmate De Luna "counseled," and who repeatedly professed his innocence to the robbery and murder of which he was accused and for which he was ultimately given a lethal injection. Almost two decades after he was put to death, investigators have almost certainly corroborated said innocence. The documentary uses this one rare case as an example for why the death penalty does not work. There are occasional blanket generalizations made by interviewees about how the death penalty doesn't deter further crimes, but such commentary is flippant and unfortunately not backed up with statistics or specifics. Therefore, if At The Death House Door is viewed with the attitude and assumption that it is a profile piece, it is a much stronger film than if the audience goes into it expecting a documentary on the successfulness or even the morality of the death penalty.
Pickett worked as a death row minister for thirteen years and oversaw ninety-five executions during his run. After each, he made an audio cassette of his thoughts and feelings while sitting with the inmate strapped to the table, watching the needle hit the vein, and hearing the men (and women)'s final words. Hearing some snippets in this documentary is eerie; the poeticism in his audio diary couldn't have been scripted better, and it is almost like he knew his legacy in life would be the stories on those tapes. To a cynical viewer, they come across almost as forced and at times, overly theatrical.
What is perhaps most interesting about At The Death House Door, though, are the questions with which Gilbert and James leave the audience after the credits roll, namely how a self-proclaimed "man of God" feels about aiding in taking these lives prematurely. Does he think that it will all work out in the end because they are going to a better place? When he recalls the memory of one particular inmate whose injection gets so badly botched that it takes the man eleven minutes to die, all the while suffering from excruciating, radiating pain, he grimaces as if he will become physically ill. Yet for over a decade, he stood by and allowed these executions to take place. The film shows Pickett briefly speaking to a group of like-minded Christian conservatives, ultimately speaking out against the death penalty and trying to get them to see why events like the aforementioned are neither Christian nor American. Where was that tenacity during those years he stood quietly on the sidelines in a murder room, praying for both the victims and their families but also for the prisoners about to join those victims wherever you believe they may be after their lives have ended? It's an extremely interesting case study, worthy of a follow up article from the Tribune.
Though at time their footage seems a bit dated-- in part due to technical style, and in part due to crediting George W. Bush only as "Governor"Gilbert and James tow an interesting line between informative and artistic in At The Death House Door, choosing to incorporate not only interviews with De Luna's very emotionally involved sister but also footage of her watching coverage of his case on what sounds like an old episode of Geraldo (the clip is not chyroned). They have no qualms about tugging on their audiences' heartstrings, and their incorporation of a haunting and sentimental score by Leo Sidran only further proves that point. Neither director is a novice when it comes to such material, and the story they weave with At The Death House Door might be their most profound and therefore successful one to date.
7 out of 10 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.