No critic ever watches a movie hoping it will be bad, but it’s quite rare for a critic to actively wish a movie was better while watching it. I don’t mean that in the sense of wishing a bad movie wasn’t bad, per say. What I mean is that it’s rare for a critic (this critic at least) to watch a film and lament the squandering of legitimate potential, to get a glimpse of true talent and see it drowned in mediocrity or something far worse. I experienced this watching Hagar Ben-Asher’s Dead Women Walking, an anthology of nine vignettes following nine women in their final weeks, days, hours, and finally minutes on death row. One of these vignettes might end up being the best short film I will see in all 2018. Set 26 hours before her execution, we watch Helen, an ex-junkie who murdered a family while robbing them for drug money, having her first and last meeting with her 18-year old son (Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders). She gave birth to him in prison, and for years she has drawn pictures of the boy she was forced to give up for adoption. When first they meet, the son can feel nothing but hatred, the mother nothing but selfless love. But they slowly reveal themselves, chipping away at the individuals they both thought they knew until there’s nothing left but two damaged, lonely people, one in need of a child, the other in need of a mother. It’s a masterwork of pacing, screenwriting, and acting—it may be blasphemous, but I found Sanders’ performance in particular more striking than his turn in Moonlight.
And yet this one scene is almost totally atypical of the rest of the film, which ranges from occasionally cringe-inducing to reliably bland. It’s so hard to figure out why Dead Women Walking doesn’t work. The easy answer would be that it’s tonally, stylistically inconsistent. Most of the sequences try for fly-on-the-wall realism, but every now and then we’re subjected to a sequence that throws away documentary restraint for spasms of stylistic excess. The most notable of these follows Dorothy, a stone-faced lesbian who murdered her prison girlfriend while incarcerated for an unrelated assault on her bus ride from death row to the death house. The entire sequence is an allusion to the Wizard of Oz of all things, climaxing with Dorothy saying to her guards, “He doesn’t have courage, you don’t have a brain, and I don’t have a heart,” all while non-diegetic symphony music swells in the background and she starts singing the final stanza of Over the Rainbow.
The tragedy is that many of these sequences would work perfectly fine on their own. I was legitimately moved by the story of Sister Rebecca, a Catholic nun who experiences a crisis of faith when the final stay for Ruth, a mentally ill junkie, is unexpectedly denied. A shorter vignette where the mother of a killer reconciles with the bitter mother of her daughter’s victim when they’re summoned to be witnesses to the execution was particularly poignant as well. But the pieces don’t come together. And though there isn’t a bad performance in the entire film, the performers are frequently saddled with material clearly written by someone who approaches American culture from the outside. Ben-Asher, who is Israeli, probably doesn’t understand that we don’t actually sing 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall anymore, particularly as a mother-daughter bonding experience at said mother’s death sentence appeal. It’s little things like that, the subconscious niggling in the back of your head that something’s fundamentally off, that makes Dead Women Walking not just a disappointing sit, but an aggravating one.