AFI Review: At the Death House Door

afi_fb.gifThe AFI Film Festival screens a lot of movies. More than 230, I’m told. So, for reviewing purposes, we’ve brought in some help. Meet Adrienne Gruben. She’s a writer/producer whose last documentary film, You’re Gonna Miss Me, about the enmeshed family of ’60s casualty Roky Erickson, was an Indie Spirit Award nominee and is now out on DVD. She most recently wrote for IndieWire and U2.com about U2 3D, the band’s newest concert film. A native Texan, Adrienne lives in both LA and Dallas. After the jump is her inaugural FB review. Expect more from her later in the week.

In Los Angeles, it seems like people don’t go to the movies. If they do, it’s because a friend was in the cast or on the crew. Or it’s work-related, because they must show up at the weekly staff meeting having eaten their Junior Mints at the top-grossing films, for fear of mockery and scorn. Yes, you can see lines of people outside LA theaters. I don’t know who those people are.

Whatever the reason, when I walked into the Magnolia with my Mom to see At the Death House Door, a doc about a Huntsville, Texas prison chaplain, if felt like a star-studded premiere, without the stars. So far, at AFI, it seems as though the movies themselves are this town’s Brad and Angelina. I know that folks are excited that Helen Hunt and De Niro are here, but that’s not why fans were itching to see this film. It sounded great to them, and they couldn’t wait to get in and watch. It may sound so mundane: people at a theater wanting to see a movie. To me, it was marvelous.

When D asked me to write about AFI Fest for FrontBurner, I was told only this: go to films and events that interest you. Death House Door‘s description appealed to me for several reasons. My grandfather was the sheriff of Webb County in South Texas for 25 years starting in the ’50s, and during that time he delivered many prisoners to Huntsville. Unarmed. Sometimes with my grandmother and their four young daughters (Mom was #3) in the car. A few times the prisoners took off at gas stations or during the hand-off, but witnesses and the lore recount stories of Sheriff Flores coaxing them back with questions like, “Why don’t you want to be good?” (He looked like Omar Sharif but had a Ghandi thing going, and played a mean jazz piano set up in the jail lobby.)

To the premiere, I wore his thick, gold-link, Sheriff’s ID bracelet emblazoned with a star flanked by tiny diamonds at each point. I caught myself rubbing it a few times during the film, not only because Mom and I inherited his enthusiasm for movies and music, but because he instantly reminded me of Reverend Carroll Pickett, the film’s main character, and by all accounts, star. Even though my grandfather was Latin, which could’ve distinguished him personality-wise pretty significantly from Rev. Pickett, they both share a calm unknowability that I’ve found in many Texas men of that generation. This film uses that unknowability as a story-telling tool (a gift to the filmmakers), allowing the uncovering of who Pickett was and is unfold almost like a traditional mystery. This unfolding is key to the film’s slow march towards its presentation of both the way the death penalty worked in Pickett’s life and, later, in Texas and society at large.

We learn pretty quickly that Pickett, originally a local Baptist preacher, was asked to minister to families of several parishioners who were taken hostage during a prison riot. After two died, he was somehow able to wade through the horror and stay on, ministering to prisoners. When the death penalty was reinstated in 1979, he was assigned the task of ministering to death row inmates from 6AM until Midnight on their execution dates. Unbeknownst to his three daughters and one son who were also interviewed throughout the film (and like their dad, attended the screening) after each execution, Rev. Pickett recorded his account, in slow, quiet, measured speech, with one single thread of melancholy woven through.

The filmmakers use those “voice-overs” to chronicle both Pickett’s understanding of what his ultimate position was on the death penalty, and why he was placed in the role of ministering to people in their last 24 hours. With those two reveals driving the film, the story also touches on the likely innocence of executed inmate Carlos De Luna, a group of rehabbed violent criminals who now play in a church band (and stood up to give the audience a jovial wave at the end, to which I responded with this weak little wave), and the growing anti-death penalty community in Texas-all told against the backdrop of the social and economic impact reinstating the death penalty had on Hunstsvillians. Not only did the high school kids have somewhere to go on Friday nights and a reason to hug their best girl when the light in the execution room went off and then on at midnight, but the protesters and supporters came into town in droves and bought “Killer Hamburgers” under kitschy billboards of “Old Sparky,” the electric chair.

Even though I gave the film’s ballot a 5, my only complaint about the storytelling mirrored my complaint about the Q&A session afterward: It deviated too much from the film’s spectacular central character to lay out an anti-death penalty argument that we’ve heard already. And storytelling-wise, it could have used about 15 fewer minutes of material. But I noticed one of the director’s received an editor credit (along with the editor), something that I’m wholly against as a producer for that very reason. All anyone needed to make an argument against the death penalty was to follow the journey that Rev. Pickett’s heart took, and nothing else. This sometimes-left-of-moderate blogger came in to this film pro death penalty, and walked out against. And that is a testament to a great character. It just so happens that the character in question was real. — Adrienne Gruben

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Comments

3 responses to “AFI Review: At the Death House Door

  1. Eric Celeste says:

    OK, who let the good, smart, contemplative writer in here? We’re trying to protect our jobs, people! I’ve got a hat I’m trying to hold the eff on to!

  2. billh says:

    Wonderful review, can’t wait to see this.
    For those interested the book, Living Next Door to the Death House (Hardcover)
    by David Clinton Owens (Author), Virginia Stem Owens (Author) is also quite good. I agree this story is less a polemic against the death penalty than a very moving and interesting account of how this man worked within that system and what impact it had on him. Bring on more Adrienne. Very nicely told.

  3. Tim Rogers says:

    Adam, I’m with Eric here. Cripes, man, you start getting guest bloggers to do stuff this good, and suddenly we are superfluous. If you want to hang out with this chick, find another way to ingratiate yourself to her.