Friday, July 20, 2012

Film Pairing — Crime and Punishment, The Way They Do It In Texas

This double feature doesn’t permit you to escape into a better world. Of course, we don’t expect that from films about murder for the most part.  Crime films are often dark and leave the viewer depressed about the human condition. Many though are suspenseful.  They make us curious.  Crimes are solved and satisfaction is achieved because the bad guys pay for their evil doing.  These two films are different. The Last Word and Into the Abyss are documentaries about how murder is dealt with in Texas.  It isn’t pretty.  And rather than having satisfying ends, these films will more than likely just piss you off.

Innocent and Executed
The Last Word presents us with a corrupt system.  I’m not giving anything a way by saying that the person convicted of the rape and murder of an elderly nun didn’t do it.  In an odd twist, this isn’t a story that casts doubt on someone’s conviction because of some “bleeding heart” liberal bias against the death penalty. Seventeen-year old Johnny Frank Garrett did not kill her.  The facts are clear and they had to have been clear to the prosecuting attorney and they had to have been ignored by the defense attorneys appointed by a judge up for reelection in a community out for blood.  The facts of the case were ignored by then Governor Ann Richards, who, it is claimed, reluctantly went along with Texas’ “death machine” to make sure she stood a chance against George W. Bush who was vying for her job.

The first and last few minutes of the film are a little heavy-handed, trying a little too hard to pit good versus evil in a melodramatic otherworldly battle.  However, the story is the story.  The facts are explored.  And they damn the government of Texas. To this day, no one is allowed to examine the records.  But it really doesn’t matter, the truth was available at the time.  And time has only supported the boy’s innocence.

Werner Herzong's documentary on the Death Penalty
Meanwhile, Werner Herzog’s documentary, Into The Abyss, took on a different challenge.  While Johnny Frank Garrett in The Last Word was innocent, it is likely that Michael Perry and his friend Jason Burkett were instrumental in the deaths of three people in the name of a shiny red Camaro.  The film makes no attempt to explore guilt or innocence, or even corruption.  His camera and interviews focus on the death penalty itself.  He talks with both perpetrators and he talks with their families and the families of the victims.

Be prepared to get to know people you think you don’t want to know and understand what you wish you didn’t.  For me, the most powerful testimony came from the manager of the death unit.  He had managed the endgame for more than 120 executions.  He was a professional, carrying out the laws of the land.  One day, this sturdy Texan, who seemed uncomfortable talking about his feelings, tells us he fell apart. They had just completed an execution. It had gone off as planned.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  But he said he just started shaking.  He didn’t know why.  It had never happened before.  He couldn’t stop shaking.  He couldn’t go to work the next day, nor the next.  In fact, he never went back.  He doesn’t regret his decision, even though he lost his pension.

A couple of tough films.  Sometimes we’re in the mood to get a glimpse of some of the harsher realities.  If you can, take a look.  If not, there are a couple of well-done Bourne Identities to watch.  If you do watch these two, drink something hard, maybe just over the rocks.  And do this only if you promise you will not drive afterward and that there are no guns in the house.

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