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At the Death House Door

June 10, 2008

NPR’s Fresh Air aired an interview with Carroll Pickett, the Texas pastor who served 15 years as the death house chaplain at a prison in Huntsville, Texas. The interview was primarily to promote the premiere of the documentary, At the Death House Door, which premiered for the first time on the Independent Film Channel on May 29th. I caught the interview and was enthralled. As a journalist, it was just frankly one hell of a story this guy had. Really incredible stuff.

I was able to watch the documentary last night and think that it’s pretty difficult not to make a compelling documentary about this because the subject matter is so dramatic. What I found troubling about the movie was that I was never really sure what the focus was from one moment to the next. There were so many interesting storylines in this film that the documentarians, Steve James (who directed the amazing Hoop Dreams) and Peter Gilbert seemed to lose the focus of the film in them.

At any moment the film is about any one of the following things:

  • Two Chicago Tribune reporters working on an investigative piece about a man who may have been falsely accused and executed in 1989 for a crime it appears he didn’t commit.
  • Carroll Pickett, the death house chaplain.
  • Pickett becoming an anti-capital punishment activist
  • The moral ambiguity involved with capital punishment and those who carry it out.
  • The family of the wrongly accused man, Carlos Deluna, and their guilt about not fighting harder for the innocence of their now-dead loved one

I don’t mean to sound like I hated this film because I actually think it’s worth a watch but I can’t help but feel like it’s ultimately muddied by directors’ inability to wrangle these various storylines.

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