The makers of "Hoop Dreams" deliver a powerful anti-death penalty polemic built around a compelling central presence in this understated documentary, only to diffuse the emotional impact by fragmenting its focus.

The makers of “Hoop Dreams” deliver a powerful anti-death penalty polemic built around a compelling central presence in this understated documentary, only to diffuse the emotional impact by fragmenting its focus. Pic still carries a sobering message about the irreversible aspect of executions but suffers for its inability to decide precisely what it wants to be: a profile of death-row chaplain Carroll Pickett or an expose on the death of one of his charges, Carlos De Luna, who was almost surely executed for a crime he didn’t commit.

Pickett is a mesmerizing figure, having presided over 95 executions in kill-happy Huntsville, Texas, during a 15-year span. Ministering to prisoners cost him his first marriage, left him adamantly opposed to the death penalty and prompted him to make personal tape recordings after each lethal injection, seeking some measure of psychic purging after the ordeal of stoically watching men die.

“At the Death House Door” is, fundamentally, Pickett’s story — how the process affected him and shaped his unlikely late-in-life pivot toward political activism. Being at the 27-year-old De Luna’s side hit him especially hard and almost inspired him to quit, fueling his belief that a system capable of putting an innocent man to death was, as he puts it, “not Christian or American or Texan.”

Yet the movie leaves Pickett to pursue a dual — and at times three-pronged — structure, incorporating a pair of Chicago Tribune reporters, Steve Mills and Maury Possley, investigating De Luna’s 1989 execution; and visiting with De Luna’s sister, Rose Rhoton, who remains shaken by the evidence that her brother was apparently wrongly convicted.

Any one of these stories might have made for an interesting film, but in weaving all three threads together, the movie feel scattered.

Director-producers Steve James and Peter Gilbert shouldn’t be faulted for their ambition, and there’s still considerable force in the underlying message. Ultimately, though, the film proves less than the sum of its parts.

At the Death House Door

IFC, Thurs. May 29, 9 p.m.

Production

Produced by Kartemquin Films. Executive producers, Gordon Quinn, Christine Lubrano, Debbie DeMontreux, Evan Shapiro, Alison Bourke; director-producers, Steve James, Peter Gilbert; co-producers, Zak Piper, Aaron Wickenden.

Crew

Camera, Gilbert; editors, James, Aaron Wickenden; music, Leo Sidran. RUNNGING TIME: 98 MIN.
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