With a capable director, a seemingly sympathetic subject, a flawed judicial system and the countdown to execution, you'd think that Liz Garbus' 2002 documentary, The Execution of Wanda Jean, would be better than it really is. Garbus previously directed the Academy Award-nominated 1998 documentary, The Farm: Life Inside Angola Prison, which deftly weaved the stories of the lifers inside Louisiana's famous prison.
But here, with a much more compressed story, Garbus seems oddly ill-equipped to explore the potential angles of Wanda Jean Allen's date with lethal injection for the murder of her female companion, Gloria Leathers. Maybe it's because there are no clear angles; everything's not quite right, starting with Allen, who, despite evoking sympathy for the plight of a borderline mentally retarded person who has turned to her faith and her defense team to save her life, remains a volatile character. And while Oklahoma's review board comes off as a bunch of disinterested part-timers just itching to deny Allen clemency, the defense team's case doesn't necessarily sound air-tight. Finally, Garbus' obsession with the finals days, even hours, of Allen's life literally feels like time poorly spent. It takes up about half of the film, or so it seems.
On top of all this, Garbus' focus blurs along the way. Instead, learning more about Allen's life, which besides her questionable mental state is supposed to be one of abject poverty, Garbus spends little time telling Allen's story. If not now, when? Almost as curious is her shifting the focus more on the defense team's lead investigator, David Presson, the brother of co-counsel Steven Presson, and who clearly grows more and more frustrated as the inevitability of the situation reveals itself. Coming away from yet another frustrating meeting, David Presson shifts in his car as he sighs, "I'm going to do my very best to support her, but she's a dead woman."
Garbus hints at the developing bond between David Presson and Allen, so much so that at one point the filmmaker captures Allen muttering under her breath, "You still my husband." There's not a hint of a romantic connection here, just one of two desperate people; one fighting to live, the other to provide that chance.
Which is all very well and good, but there's this creeping sense that Allen, for a variety of reasons, gets shut out of her own story. One reason is the reality of the situation: Two days before the scheduled execution, public access to her is cut off. So perhaps Garbus was forced to look elsewhere for her drama, showing the struggle through David's weary eyes.
So is The Execution of Wanda Jean a love story? Not quite. A critique of our obviously flawed system? Not entirely. (Her lack of research and sourcing on this point is stunning.) The exploration of a family tree? Nope.
On this last point, Garbus may have failed as well, but there is an earnest effort at work, because trying to show both sides of the murder offers an opportunity to look at life below our rather limited socioeconomic radar. The more we watch the more we realize that some form of mental illness runs in Allen's family. Her brother, who is a pastor of a ramshackle congregation, twitches and frets his way through the film, petulant when he feels upstaged by a visiting minister, angry at David when he feels shut out of the process. Allen's mother also seems, well, not quite right as David tries to explain to her her daughter's plight.
On the other side, the family of the victim, Gloria Leathers, is initially shown in a supportive light; the murder was so long ago, they acknowledge, and Allen so troubled mentally that they collectively support clemency. That is, until the date draws near, and the cracks of that support are revealed. "She should fry," snarls one relative.
Still, Garbus doesn't seem to know what to do with her subjects. A Time reporter shows up out of nowhere, but she doesn't interview him. Nor does she seem interested in interviewing the Rev. Jesse Jackson during one of his usual photo-op appearances, this time to plead for Allen's clemency.
We've seen a lot of this before in everything from the fictional but fact-based Dead Man Walking to the ground-breaking Errol Morris documentary A Thin Blue Line, the latter of which helped lead to the exoneration of convicted murderer Randall Adams. In both of those films, the subject in question presented a much richer source for examination, whether it's about sympathy, redemption or freedom. Certainly Wanda Jean Allen is shown for the tragic figure she was. But that doesn't necessarily translate to the kind of compelling character Garbus may have wished to present, nor is the story that gripping. More than anything, by the movie's sluggish, coda-free conclusion, we're left in a funk.
It's one of those rare moments you actually might miss being out on The Farm.
(Also out on DVD this week, of interest: Jules Verne 3 Pack Collection; The Mummy Collector's Set; CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Season 5; Frighteners (Unrated Director's Cut); Herbie: Fully Loaded; and Murderball.)