Monday, September 7, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

At the Death House Door (2008): This is a documentary focusing on two coinciding narratives in the Texas justice system. We're introduced to Carroll Pickett, a retired minister and chaplain who witnessed and participated in nearly 100 lethal executions in Huntsville. After two of his parishioners were brutally murdered by convicts during a 1974 prison siege, Pickett became an advocate for the death penalty. A few years later, Pickett became the prison chaplain in Huntsville, spending the next 15 years ministering to inmates on death row. Pickett dealt with the ongoing emotional weight of walking men to their deaths through voicing his thoughts on a tape recorder. Listening to his voice on the recordings is haunting as he recalls tiny details of every execution. An reserved man, he kept his feelings from his family, driving himself into an emotional isolation.

The second narrative follows two Chicago reporters as they investigate the execution of Carlos De Luna, believing that the state of Texas wrongfully executed an innocent man. De Luna was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a gas station attendant, single mother Wanda Lopez. Despite a lack of serious evidence and repeated appeals, De Luna was executed in December of 1989. Carroll Pickett was the chaplain by his side. Pickett is convinced that Texas executed an innocent man. The two stories come together as Pickett, the Chicago reporters, and De Luna's sister all become public advocates for abolishing the death penalty.

No matter your view on the issue, Pickett's life is compelling. This is a man who stood in the execution chamber 95 times. He's been a part of the system. He's felt the emotion that comes from walking down a hallway with a person who is about to die. He's held the convicts' hands, heard their prayers, listened to their final words and requests. He's looked at the issue from both a social and biblical perspective. His conclusion: lethal execution is cruel and unusual punishment. It's hard to argue with the guy who watched as De Luna's execution went horribly wrong, where a procedure that should have been painless and taken seconds was drawn out into 11 minutes of incredible pain.

As far as filmmaking goes, the documentary mostly lets Pickett's life speak for itself. There is a clear anti-death penalty agenda, which feels a bit heavy-handed in the final 15 minutes and detracts from the overall narrative. We've seen how the justice system failed De Luna and Pickett's family; we don't have to have it shoved down our throats. But that's just nit-picking at a fine documentary that draws out some very deep spiritual questions. What would I have done if I were in Pickett's shoes? If he came out against the death penalty, he'd be fired by going against the policies of the system. If he came out in favor of the death penalty, no prisoner would allow him to minister to them. He's stuck navigating a system that kills people while trying to offer them hope. Despite Pickett's numerous flaws, his story is a beautiful picture of the Gospel.

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