At the Death House Door (2008) Poster

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Powerful Testimony from an Eye Witness
kenmorefield5 April 2008
Saw this at the Full-Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina. It is a powerful indictment of the death penalty--at times maddening, at times heart-breaking.

If there is a fault in the film as a film (rather than as a polemic) it is that it can't quite decide whether it wants to be a profile of Pickett and really probe the psychological and spiritual costs of the death penalty or whether it wants to parley his testimony into a piece of anti-death penalty activism anchored on claims of wrongful execution and the investigative reporters' examination of the De Luna case

The most powerful and effective parts are comprised of Pickett's narrative, not just about the De Luna case but about how being in such a job has shaped and cost him. Perhaps because Pickett has been (and is) more of an outspoken activist since leaving his position, the film almost feels compelled to follow the narrative outside of the prison and the accounts of being "At the Death House Door" to a more overt and underlined conclusion than is necessary. It would probably be more powerful if it told Pickett's (and De Luna's) story and trusted in the power of the words and images to make the points it hammers home in the last 15-20 minutes of the film. (Maybe a slight edit would help, too.)

Still, this is picking nits at what is an effective and important piece of documentary film-making. For or against the death penalty, one has to acknowledge that Pickett has first-hand, eye-witness experience with the process and is thus uniquely situated to comment on it.
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Powerful piece of Advocacy against the Death Penalty
JustCuriosity12 March 2008
At Death House Door had its World Premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, TX. This is appropriate since its focus is on the death penalty here in the Lone Star state at the Death Chamber in Huntsville, TX. The film is a powerful indictment of the Texas death penalty. It makes little pretense at neutrality and is clearly designed to argue its point-of-view rather than present a unbiased analysis of the issue. The film presents an intensely human narrative of the Texas death penalty.

It does this mostly through the eyes of Reverend Carolle Pickett who served as the Huntsville death row chaplain from 1982-95 spending the final day with 95 death penalty prisoners. He is clearly haunted by what he has witnessed on death row and has now become an advocate against the continued use of the death penalty.

The film's second parallel narrative follows the tragic case of Carlos De Luna who appears to have been executed in 1989 for a crime he didn't commit despite significant evidence that another man actually committed the murder that De Luna was accused of. The film does a better job of arguing that the Texas death penalty system is deeply flawed than it does in making a case that the death penalty is inherently wrong.

At the Death House Door is a compelling, emotional documentary that presents a strong moral and human case against the death penalty. One is certainly left to wonder if Carlos De Luna was wrongly executed and how many others like him are out there.

While this is a solid and provocative film, it seems a level below veteran documentary film maker Steve James's very best films, Hoop Dreams and Stevie. Still, this is a very good film that deserves to be widely seen as our society has begun to question how we use the death penalty in the United States in general - and in Texas in particular.
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Dying To Make A Statement
danielletbd10 May 2008
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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Money maker for Pickett
khayes735628 January 2009
I observed Pickett on a number of occasions and never did see any hesitancy in his pro-death penalty stance. I would be much more sympathetic to his new stance, if he was not making any money out of it. There are very few pro-death penalty people who are offered stipends, etc.. Most of the money is being made by "former" supporters who now are opposed and get considerable speaking fees.

He plays VERY loose and free with the truth in this so called documentary. Almost none of the "evidence" that is being presented would ever get into a court of law anywhere, yet it is being presented a fact.
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Werner Herzogg wishes he could have made a documentary this good
mmalmberg23422 August 2017
If you have never thought about the death penalty, this film will open your eyes to a very harsh reality we live in. It is an absolute must see. I have not seen a more moving film on the death penalty and I doubt I ever will. The first hand accounts of the people involved in the process is a fantastic way to understand the system that is in place and it's very real potential flaws. It's been years since I've seen it and I still think about it and remember some pets vividly. It will really stick with. I am crossing my fingers it will come to Netflix .
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