“Dead Man Walking” takes a twist in Ted Schillinger’s homespun but thought-provoking documentary about the relationship that develops between Tennessee death-row inmate Daryl Holton and Robert Blecker, a professor at New York School of Law, who’s an active proponent of the death penalty, and as such a rarity among the academics willing to speak publicly on the issue.
“Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead” is the catchy title of the picture, but it oversimplifies both the teacher’s viewpoint and the way that his connection with Holton, convicted of killing his four children in 1997, evolves. Blecker is a proponent of the death penalty on the basis of retributive justice, but also argues that while some criminals deserve to die simply because of the heinous nature of their acts, that punishment should be reserved for only what he calls “the worst of the worst.”
Initially, Holton seems to Blecker to fit into that category. But as he corresponds with him and travels to Tennessee’s death row to talk directly to him, the death-penalty advocate begins to question whether he does, despite the man’s refusal to file appeals on his own behalf. But as the film follows the case through a flurry of stays and legal challenges, a nagging question emerges about Holton’s motives: is his offhandedly direct attitude honest, or cunningly designed to evade the truth and manipulate both the system and Blecker? A final tableau in which Blecker stands literally on the fence between opposing protest groups outside the prison where Holton is facing execution sums things up nicely.
“Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead” seems straightforward, but that’s deceptive, because ultimately it challenges easy answers on either side of the death penalty debate. And in the jarringly intelligent Holton and the intense Blecker, whose confidence in his own theories slackens as the picture proceeds, it has two characters that you may not want to identify with, but will certainly find fascinating.
Shot in on-the-fly fashion by Matt Howe and nicely edited by Schillinger and Kendrick Simmons, the result is a legal joust that ends in the sort of satisfyingly ambiguous fashion that should spur post-screening conversation.