Stretching a moral conundrum to its breaking point, Ted Schillinger’s doc on the unlikely relationship of law professor Robert Blecker and death-row inmate Daryl Holton nevertheless dismantles even the best justification for capital punishment. The film follows Blecker over several years as he becomes increasingly preoccupied with the case of Holton, who murdered his own four children in 1997 to (he claims) alleviate their suffering under the care of his ex-wife. Friendship doesn’t adequately describe what develops between these men by mail and during Blecker’s filmed face-to-face interviews; wily and flattering, Holton handily manipulates the intellectually vain interrogator, who seems delighted to have a test case—and captive audience—for his provocative, contradictory opinions.
Such a comprehensive overview of the issues is appropriate given the death penalty’s button-pushing potential, but Schillinger goes overboard with long, solo passages of the preening prof holding forth on “blood pollution,” social interconnectedness and the sanctity of life. Still, Blecker’s climactic nighttime encounter with garden-variety execution advocates offers a resolution-by-proxy of the duo’s bizarre waltz, as well as a powerful home truth: Wanting someone to die is bloodlust no matter what the justification, whether it happens by your hands or the state’s.