The sober and gripping “Dead Women Walking” focuses on the final days of a series of female inmates facing the death sentence. Divided into nine chapters, each inching its way inexorably closer to the moment of execution, the drama turns the fragmentation of its approach to a powerful advantage. Not only do the individual stories — hard, jagged and persuasive — become tiles in a more complex mosaic, taken together they also give a peculiar experience of time that judders and halts, elongates and foreshortens. It’s impossible for most of us to say if this is an accurate representation of temporal reality for these characters, but it makes even those of us who are convinced we understand the issues around capital punishment consider it in a stark new light. This is not a film about the death penalty; it’s a film about the systems and practices we collectively call Death Row.
With subject matter as politically controversial as this, the challenge for any filmmaker is to get out of their own way. Israeli director Hagar Ben-Asher, in her fourth feature, strips down the story with serious-minded determination, rigorously defining the film’s narrow scope and ruthlessly excising anything outside it, while at the same time allowing the filmmaking, in particular the riveting performances from her largely female ensemble cast, to deliver scintillating raw-nerve compassion.
None of the women is suggested to be wrongly convicted. After each vignette, a terse title card outlines the subject’s often brutal crime — usually multiple homicides, and in one case the murder of a couple and their baby — in such definitive black-and-white that it feels incontrovertible. Indeed, the first inmate we meet, Donna (June Carryl) is among the least obviously sympathetic. She’s embarking on her last appeal; her harried, pro bono lawyer begs her to play the role of penitent and not to flash her trademark broad smile at the waiting press photographers. But Donna can’t help it, it bursts out of her, and her image as a remorseless monster is confirmed. She’s not the only inmate who seems unwilling or incapable of acting in her own best interests.
The film’s inevitably fatalistic tone magnifies rare moments of kindness and support but never downplays the tremendous cost at which they come. Wendy (Joy Nash), heartbroken that her mother has refused to come to see her, plays a game of cards with her friend from the cell adjacent, while the guards turn a blind eye. That it’s a bending of the rules to grant this one moment of normalcy to these women is made all the more poignant by the farewell they exchange: “I’ll see you real soon.” In another movingly underplayed exchange, Helen (Maya Lynn Robinson) forms the tiniest of connections with her estranged son (Ashton Sanders from “Moonlight”). Becky (Maya Eshet) takes her final shower while delivering a grotesquely poetic chronicle of her childhood abuse, and her guard improvises a solution to her request for lipstick. And a visiting nun, Sister Rebecca (Dale Dickey, a standout among so many standouts) compromises her position with the warden, and also possibly with her order and her God, to provide some tiny measure of relief to the inmate in her care.
The photography is unadorned, though DP David Stragmeister’s restrained artfulness gives the images depth and resonance even in their strip-lit institutional sterility. And while Ben-Asher and composer Emir Isilay ascribe to each woman her own concluding piece of music, sentimental embellishments are otherwise kept to a minimum. This is far from a polemic, and it’s possible that death penalty advocates (not that the film is likely to reach many) could emerge with their basic viewpoint unchanged. But it’s difficult to believe that, having seen the erosion of spirit the system leaves on everyone it touches, they would not argue just as forcefully for reform.
“Dead Women Walking” is inarguably harrowing watch, but the forlorn, bare-bones humanism of the project is unmistakable: Everyone here — guards, inmates, friends, social workers, even the families of the convicts’ victims — has their humanity challenged on a profound level by proximity to Death Row. Some respond courageously with renewed resources of compassion; some harden into callousness; some devolve into cruelty, like the gatekeeper who sneers at Sister Rebecca “I hope your girlfriend fries tomorrow.” But as the film comprehensively and devastatingly demonstrates, none are unaffected. And neither are we.