A fascinating storytelling tour de force and an ambiguous documentary about a Death Row convict.
A bald-headed man in a blue shirt sits in the corner of a stark room. He leans into the camera, his face half in shadow, and begins to tell his story. The first words he speaks are about time: ‘In the blink of an eye, you can look and 10 years are gone… but the next week is agony.’ This is Nick Yarris, recounting the years that he spent in solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania prison. It’s a dramatic opening to David Sington’s documentary, which is also a breathtakingly dramatic monologue. Yarris is charismatic, intense and a masterful storyteller. After two decades on death row, Yarris requested that all appeals be ceased, and that he be put to death; David Sington’s engrossing, if uneasy, film is an attempt to understand what led to that decision.
Footage of Yarris is mixed with cinematic recreations, often almost abstract close-ups, filmed with a Gregory Crewdson-like vibrancy; in slow motion, a boy runs through the woods, a hint at a dark secret that is shockingly revealed at the film’s end; water pours down a man’s back in a shower; a pair of women’s gloves lie on the seat of an empty car. Crisp, eerie photography of the inside of the prison – the rows of bars, the cold steel of a toilet in an empty cell – is also interwoven with Nick’s tale, as he speaks about the harsh, brutal treatment that he and other prisoners endured, including being ‘tortured with silence’. It’s a captivating performance, full of emotion, as he recounts the horrors of jail, building up a sense of atmosphere by evocatively describing life behind bars, then his rehabilitation, and his newly found obsession with words and literature.
It’s only later in the film that he begins to reveal the details of his past, and the nature of his drug addiction and the crimes that he committed. Though we learn that he was first jailed for auto theft, the crime that – wrongly – landed him on death row is a mystery that runs like a thread throughout much of the film. It’s a story full of twists, turns and tragedies, punctuated by the many mistakes that he made, and also the vagaries and delays of the justice system. And though we learn that he was later exonerated of murder after the advent of DNA testing (although it took years), it’s the final twist that is the most disturbing, powerful and gut-wrenching.
It’s a striking, compelling film that is incredibly personal. Yet, it’s hard, at the end, not to feel as though we’ve been manipulated by both the filmmaker and Yarris. The vague way he’s shot (and the film itself) is reminiscent of interviews in Errol Morris’s remarkable documentary The Thin Blue Line>, where the location is obscured, lending a sense that Yarris is perhaps still in the system, though the reality is that his ordeal ended in 2003. While his story is an incredible one, it feels like we’ve watched a very rehearsed theatrical performance, and are left wondering how much of this is documentary and how much is masterful storytelling. But maybe it doesn’t actually matter.
Watch the trailer: