At the Death House Door (Gilbert and James, 2008)


I’m convinced in lists such as this one, that the top handful of films are usually somewhat interchangeable. Certainly any film on this list is one that I would recommend heartily, enjoy, and feel would reward multiple viewings. The differences, then, in order between the first few films has as much to do with the context in which one saw the film and one’s own pathology and viewing preferences.

After screening the film at the Full-Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, I wrote that the parts of the film focusing on the personal transformation of Carroll Pickett from prison chaplain to anti-death penalty activist was more engaging for me than the investigative report into the case of Carlos DeLuna. I still feel that way, and a part of me suspects that the bifurcated focus has made it easier for some to dismiss the film as merely and only a political polemic.

I have read some responses to film that dismiss as (and for) being too politically slanted. Maybe, but as with Hoop Dreams and Stevie, Gilbert and James are interested, first and foremost, in people. The film reflects the beliefs of the people in it.

Other responses have complained that the film is all set up and no pay off. We are told about the tapes onto which Pickett poured out his doubts and fears after each execution he has to witness, but we never hear them. We do hear Pickett, though, and I would argue that we know what is on them.

Pickett’s odyssey makes for an incredible story. One of the executions he had to preside over was of a man who killed a popular parishioner during a prison riot. Watching Pickett negotiate, even in memory, the complex of emotions that his job has forced him to reconcile, I was struck by how the film begins with the political and moves to the spiritual. Like Plato’s Republic, which cannot answer the question “What is Justice?” without describing the perfect society, At the Death House Door begins with a seemingly simple, direct question and shows how hopelessly complicated the simplest questions can be.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.