Director-screenwriter Hagar Ben-Asher crafts a devastating portrait of the emotional toll taken by capital punishment in her drama receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Structured as nine vignettes depicting episodes leading up to the execution of nine female inmates, Dead Women Walking strongly makes its humanistic points without resorting to didactic arguments. Although undeniably tough viewing, the film demands attention.
The stories, each lasting roughly 10 minutes, take place in time periods that becomes increasingly closer to the actual moment of execution, and they all pack a punch. In the first, Donna (June Carryl) is heading to a courtroom for a final appeal of her sentence. Her lawyer begs her not to smile for the photographers on the scene, but she’s unable to resist when she sees her mother and young son.
Almost all the vignettes feature different central characters. Wendy (Joy Nash) becomes distraught when she learns that her family is not coming for a final visit. The guards take pity on her and allow her to play cards outside her cell with a fellow death row prisoner who tells her, “I’ll see you real soon.”
In perhaps the most powerful segment, Helen (Maya Lynne Robinson) receives a visit from the 18-year-old son (Ashton Sanders, Moonlight) she gave up for adoption shortly after giving birth in prison. Referring to the murders she committed, he warily asks the mother he never met, “Why’d you do it?” before adding, “Am I gonna become a murderer, too?” When they part, he performs an act of kindness that allows her to meet her fate with grace.
Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone) delivers a standout performance as a nun counseling Ruth (Bess Rous), who’s just learned that her request for a stay has been denied. The nun begs the warden to let Ruth smoke crack which she’s procured from a guard who’s surprised to be dealing with a “drug-dealing nun.” The warden generously looks the other way, allowing his prisoner a final moment of ecstasy before meeting her end.
Dorothy (Dot-Marie Jones) embarks on her final car ride, from death row to the death house, but not before being taunted, “Hey Dorothy, follow the yellow brick road!” by a fellow prisoner. Along the way, one of her minders, a former high school classmate, makes painfully awkward conversation. The ride ends abruptly in a fashion that foreshadows Dorothy’s imminent fate.
Celine (Lynn Collins) spends her final hour watching a documentary about her own case, featuring gruesome crime scene photos and interviews with the victim’s relatives. In the process, she ignores her last meal consisting of a hamburger and fries.
Just before her execution, Becky (Maya Eshet) takes a shower while delivering a monologue to the female guard uncomfortably tending to her. When Becky becomes upset at not having any lipstick, the guard helps her out in unorthodox fashion.
The penultimate sequence centers on the witnesses to an execution, depicting the wariness between the families of the murderer and the family that eventually leads to mutual sympathy. And in the final episode, we see in graphic detail the execution by lethal injection of Donna, the character from the first.
Featuring superb performances by its ensemble, especially the actresses portraying the various death row inmates, Dead Women Walking powerfully conveys the trauma enacted by the state-sanctioned taking of life, not only on the prisoners but everyone else involved as well. Onscreen graphics tell us about the brutal crimes each of the prisoners has committed, with no arguments made that any of them might be innocent. None of the characters addresses the issue of whether capital punishment is justified, making the film all the more effective for its restraining from sociological posturing. And with a few exceptions, all of the prison guards and officials are depicted as sympathetic and caring individuals performing tasks which many of them would clearly rather avoid. That its horrific situations are presented so matter-of-factly and without melodrama is what gives the film its devastating effect.
Production companies: Blackpills, HK Corp.
Cast: June Carryl, Ben Zelevansky, Joy Nash, Jeryl Prescott, Maya Lynne Robinson, Ashton Sanders, Mark Totty, Dale Dickey, Bess Rous, Dot-Marie Jones, Jeremey Ratchford, Lynn Collins, Maya Eshet, Bonnie McNeil, Colleen Camp
Director-screenwriter: Hagar Ben-Asher
Producers: Lorne Hiltser, Michael M. McGuire
Executive producers: Lorne Hiltser, David Gitlis, Philippe Haim, Clara Levy
Director of photography: David Stragmeister
Production designer: Yong Ok Lee
Editors: Nimrod Goldstein, Guy Nernesh, Ron Omer
Composer: Emir Isilay
Casting: Rich Delia
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival