Death Penalty Movies
I've been working my way through Krzysztof Kieslowski's series of ten one-hour films called The Decalogue. Last night I watched Decalogue 5. It was about this deplorable scumbag who murders a taxi driver for no reason and is sentenced to death.
Usually when I'm watching movies I assume that the filmmakers are taking a liberal stance on whatever issues they're dealing with, especially when the filmmakers are Europeans. So I expected the film to be an argument against capital punishment. But that wasn't necessarily the case in this film.
One central character, the scumbag's lawyer, does make the case that capital punishment is innefective as a deterrent and he is a sympathetic character, so when he agonizes about his client's impending execution, we agonize along with him. But the murderer is far from sympathetic. We see him commit a brutal murder, which is, to say the least, not endearing, and we also see him before the murder behaving with reckless disregard for the people around him. He drops a rock off of an overpass into traffic for no reason, he pushes down a man while he's urinating in the restroom, he scares an old lady's pidgeons away. Before he's even committed the murder we hate him. At least I did. His character becomes a bit more complicated when, as he is about to be hanged, he tells his lawyer about how he was indirectly responsible for his kid sister's death. He says that maybe things would've turned out differently if his little sister hadn't been killed. But this didn't engender any sympathy on my part. I still hated him and was fine with him being executed.
Dead Man Walking is another death penalty movie that I assumed was supposed to be an argument against capital punishment. The Sean Penn character is similar to the Decalogue murderer in that he is also undeniably a scumbag, although he does commit fewer acts of random evil and director Tim Robbins puts more effort into getting us to feel sympathy for this condemned. He didn't have a daddy; he was poor; he confesses at the last hour and shows remorse. But, again, I couldn't see this guy's death as a tragedy and I didn't see the film as making a coherent case against the death penalty.
So the question I've been asking myself is whether these filmmakers were trying to present an argument against capital punishment and I just don't see it, or if the films are meant more as Rorschach (ink blot) tests in that they want us to react to the executions that we witness and learn about ourselves from our reactions. I think that, whether intended or not, both of these films succeed as Rorschach tests. I learned that I'm totally OK with the execution of murderers. As I watched both of them die I felt no sadness or regret. I wasn't happy, but I was OK with it. The way I see it, if you take an innocent life you automatically forfeit your own right to life.
In the real world I'm somewhat ambivalent about capital punishment because of the very real possibility of people being executed for crimes they didn't commit. But in a film where we know that the condemned is guilty, I can't see his death as lamentable.
I suspect other people had different reactions to these films. To someone adamantly opposed to capital punishment, perhaps the execution scenes (both very well-acted, by the way, especially Penn) do represent a strong anti-capital punishment statement. Maybe they see injustice or barbarism where I don't.