I was very excited to learn that Steve James and Peter Gilbert, the filmmakers behind a little documentary called Hoop Dreams, were collaborating on another project, this time exploring the always controversial issue of the death penalty. At the Death House Door (premiering tomorrow night on IFC) is an intimate look at the life and career of the Reverend Carroll Pickett, chaplain for 15 years at the death house (not death row) of the notorious Huntsville (TX) Prison.
While James and Gilbert focus primarily on Pickett's transformation from a supporter of the death penalty to an outspoken advocate for its abolition, they also examine the case of Carlos De Luna, who was wrongly executed under Pickett's supervision in 1989. The two stories are introduced immediately but they don't gel until we meet De Luna's sister toward the end of the film. In other words, we have two good threads instead of one great thread, and the documentary's potential is unrealized. Just to get the negatives out of the way - the film also runs a little long and the sound is at times almost inaudible. It was if James and Gilbert only used a boom mike, which I wouldn't recommend for a scene in which we're supposed to be listening to 20 year-old cassette tape recordings of a man mumbling in a Southern drawl.
This is not to say At the Death House Door doesn't have a story worth telling. Although Pickett was reluctant to take the job, he still supported capital punishment. Huntsville is the execution capital of the U.S., remember, and a place disconcertingly proud of the attention it receives because of it ("Killer Burgers" and "Murder Meals" are local favorites). Over the course of the 95 lethal injections he witnessed - several of which were botched, including one that lasted 11 minutes - Pickett became severely depressed. But as God's servant, he felt his "duty" was to comfort these men in their last minutes, even if he thought they may be innocent, and even after he was against the practice altogether.
Had James and Gilbert thrown their energy entirely behind Pickett's story, I think At the Death House Door would have been a devastatingly poignant (albeit overwhelmingly depressing) film, but as it is, I can only call it important and ambitious.