Death Row

Death Row


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Werner Herzog, when in documentarian mode, is legendary for his ability to dig up provocative and haunting stories from the outer edges of modern society.

With his 2010 documentary Into The Abyss, Herzog took his camera inside a United States maximum security prison to film the last few days on death row for convicted inmates. In his inimitable style, he posed a medley of Herzogian questions not only for the inmates, but their families, friends and the unfortunate victims' surviving relatives.

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It was a haunting study of the way violence and violent death is seemingly infused into American society (particularly those areas of society wracked with poverty), and how hard it can be to excise its poisonous effects once it is lodged within families. It was a documentary that played like a melody of misery and tragedy, though it was not without its strange moments of black humour. With Death Row, Herzog has returned to the same subject, weaving together, in a combined 188 minutes, four studies of death row inmates, people who, as Herzog observes, are unique among humans in that they know exactly when they will die.

Death Row’s subjects are not connected in any way except for their proposed fate, and the film is designed so that its segments can be watched separately (it will be aired as a four-part TV series for Investigation Discovery). Each of these film portraits begins the same way and in a similar vein to Into the Abyss. We start with a long travelling shot moving through a prison ante chamber, hovering for a moment, perhaps tellingly, to focus on two bibles on a table, before entering the death chamber itself.

Herzog’s unmistakable off-screen voice pronounces the same political position he enunciated in Into The Abyss - that he is an opponent of the death sentence though aware that he is a ‘guest’ in the US with a different cultural history. But as with Into The Abyss, Herzog is not looking to assist the convicts with their legal case and the film is not an anti-capital punishment polemic. Instead, we see Herzog’s particular questioning style and perseverance elicit a range of unsettling, frank, bizarre, shocking and sometimes outright funny responses from his interviewees. Only Herzog could find subjects like these.

The inmates interviewed are the ‘stars’ in a sense, though the authorities, family members of the inmates and victims are also allowed to speak. The convicts are a diverse group, though in each case they have been accused of directly murdering or being involved in the murder of one or more individuals (more than one interviewee complains of the peculiarities of the US legal system that not only stacks up consecutive life sentences but allows for blanket capital murder charges to be applied to accessories even if they were not the ones directly killing).

Some of the particular details of the crimes, particularly the methods of killing that the prosecution stated were employed by convicts Linda Carty and James Barnes, are truly disturbing. This is accentuated by the mournful music of, and the illustrations of the crime scenes through the use of police photographs and videos of the various crime scenes. Some of the images are quite unforgettable, almost beautiful in their own terrible way - a snapshot of a burned hotel room with the floor warped into a disturbing red shade from the heat, a blood smear on a door, a flock of birds flying over a prison yard against a grey morning sky.

Subject Carty is sentenced to death for the murder of 25-year-old Joana Rodrigues in order to kidnap the latter’s three-day-old son. Three accomplices, whom she allegedly conned into the act, kidnapped Joana after robbing her house believing there was marijuana stashed there. Joanna was left to suffocate in a car boot, allegedly by Carty. Carty was the only one sentenced to death, however.

George Rivas and Joseph Garcia are perhaps the most fascinating of the subjects, if only as they seem far too intelligent and thoughtful to have ever needed to turn to crime. Rivas in particular is reminiscent of Robert De Niro’s character in Heat, a true professional thief and robber who never saw the need to kill anyone, preferring to rely on deception, stealth and strategy instead.

In December 2000, he led the ‘Texas Seven’ – including Garcia - in pulling off an unbelievable break-out from the John B Connelly Unit, a Texan maximum security prison. Their plan, which took months to put together, could easily make for a movie script. Both he and Garcia were recaptured, however, and now face the death penalty given that a police officer died during a botched robbery that they launched following their breakout.

The lugubrious Hank Skinner is a man who can honestly say he has been in the most stressful situation possible on the planet - just 35 minutes before he was due to die on his last death row stretch, he was granted a stay of execution on account of new evidence. He laughs that he still got to eat his last meal, and would get a second one if he had to go around again. He maintains that he is innocent of the murder of his girlfriend and her two grown-up sons.

To say James Barnes made for challenging interview subject for Herzog is putting it lightly. When he was finally arraigned for the crime of raping and killing Patricia Patsy Miller, Barnes was already serving a prison sentence for having strangled his wife. Now on death row, he is admitting to having committed other murders. Detectives interviewed by Herzog warn that he is a master player of the legal system. Herzog admits in his voice over to the risk of compromise if he becomes too involved with Barnes’s various revelations.

Herzog has often fought against a clear distinction between fiction and documentary, and he often seems to blurs the lines in all his films. What is common to all is the search for an intriguing story and personality, and here Herzog has found five. Bleak, stripped down and haunting, this is a powerful song of a film from the director who makes it look all so effortless - it is after all, just a film with people in a box talking to Herzog. Much is up to the viewer to read what they will into the various protestations of guilt, innocence and remorse from the subjects. But these are stories you can’t find elsewhere, at least not told in the same fascinating way.

Reviewed on: 13 Feb 2012
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Series of portraits of inmates on Death Row.
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Director: Werner Herzog

Year: 2012

Runtime: 188 minutes

Country: USA / UK / Austria

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