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Dead Women Walking

Nine women await their execution, in multilayered drama dealing with regret, redemption, failed motherhood, sexual abuse, drugs and much more - from the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


Nine very different women have been sentenced to death somewhere in the US. They all have very different life stories. What they all have in common is an impending execution. The film is broken down into nine vignettes, and it’s only at the end of each vignette that we find out the crime that each individual female has committed. All of them without exception have committed murder. Their victims were parents, their partner or even an entire family.

You will be forgiven for thinking that Dead Women Walking is a reenactment of real-life stories. The crimes and the time left before the execution is presented in black intertitles, giving the film a certain television documentary feel. The performances are very convincing. June Carryl is particularly harrowing as Donna Black in the opening vignette. She does not wish for clemency, and regrets that her young boy should be present during her final appeal. That’s because she wants to protect him from the memories that might haunt him in the future. In another powerful moment, Helen (Maya Lynne Robinson, pictured above) receives a visit from her 18-year-old son (Ashton Sanders from Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, 2016), who she gave up for adoption shortly after giving birth in custody. They cry and make the familiar hand in the glass connecting gesture.

Of course it isn’t all about motherhood. Celine (Lynn Collins) watches a documentary about very her own case, with very graphic pictures of the mutilated body of her victim. It’s not entirely clear whether she regrets or gains satisfaction from seeing the gruesome images. Other peculiar moments include a drug smuggling nun (she believes that the drug will provide some sort of relief to frantic young woman on death row to whom she provides spiritual guidance) and a cow being killed by a car just as another woman is driven to her execution site, foreshadowing her imminent fate.

The most moving snippet comes towards the end of the movie, when the mother of the murderer quickly reconciles with the mother of the victim. The quick interaction takes place as the two women collect their mobile phones on the way out of the execution site, after watching the death penalty being carried out. The poignancy is in the subtlety and simplicity of the moment. The details and the nature of the crime are never revealed. We hear the cries of the female being executed, yet never see her face.

While every effective at times, Dead Women Walking doesn’t work entirely as a feature film. The excessive number of stories dilutes any possibility of character development. The narrative is simply too fragmented. Had the film focused on three or four women instead, the director could investigate their motives and emotions in more detail. Instead, the stories seem superficial and a little gratuitous, perhaps even exploitative.

The only linearity of the film relies on the proximity of execution (the closer we get to the end of the movie, the closer we get to the execution). There are just too many themes being discussed at once (failed motherhood, drugs, sexual abuse, etc). The director never attempts to answer the huge question: “Why???” (did these women kill).

The soundtrack of the film is a little awkward. Using Portishead’s aptly named song The Rip sounds a little cynical. While closing the film with Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free exactly as an execution is being carried out, seems to endorse – perhaps unwittingly – the barbaric death penalty by suggesting that it’s a tool for redemption.

Dead Women Walking shows at the 22nd Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival taking place right now. DMovies is following the event live.

By Hagar Ben-Asher - 21-11-2018

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