Herzog travels to Death Row in Conroe, Texas, to examine a triple homicide case and asks the big questions: not only why do people kill, but why the State feels compelled to do the same in response. He talks to people on both sides of the bloody equation, the incarcerated perpetrators, the families and friends of the victims as well as those who choose to work within a system created to kill.
Initially, the reels of police video seem all too recognisable, especially with the wall of mournful strings that Herzog layers across the images. The blood-splatters in a stranger’s house are equally familiar, no matter their violent story, but it’s when Herzog steps away from the graphic horror to examine the communities on both sides of this blunt terror that the truth comes out.
Especially fascinating is the prison chaplain, framed with the anonymous graves of the Death Row prisoners — no names, just the numbers from their uniforms and wooden crosses — as he talks about gently holding their ankles as the lethal injection courses through their veins. He’s the first person you see weeping on camera, but not the last. Jason Burkett’s father has spent a lifetime incarcerated; his testimony at his son’s hearing might just have saved that young man’s life, as he’s interviewed among a lattice of steel bars recounting the time that he, Jason and his other son were all serving time in the same prison, eating a Thanksgiving dinner together, his features knit together with sadness and shame.
Violent crime almost seems like an afterthought in the communities that spawned these men; death doesn’t so much lurk in the shadows as just sit and await the inevitable. The killers are stilled behind glass, either in grim acceptance or complete self-denial. Herzog ultimately visits the object of desire that lead to this needless bloodshed; the red Camaro impounded in a police yard. Impassive and still, the roots of a tree pinning it to the earth, unremittingly bleak but with a charge of life all its own, much like Herzog’s film.
A haunting portrayal of people who are neither completely innocent nor wholly evil, and the terrible price of killing, whether in the pursuit of a sports car or in the name of justice.
Reviewed by Philip Wilding