Jeremy Peter Allen has done the world of film a huge favour by bringing Yann Martel’s short story, Manners of Dying, to the big screen. Far more than an echo of Dead Man Walking (cross-reference below) this production has as much to say about the vagaries of recording historical “facts” as the complex relationship between an executioner and his “client” during the last few hours of life.
Roy Dupuis as the “lawfully sentenced to death” Kevin Barlow delivers an astonishing performance while his manner of dying is sculpted, edited and painstakingly recorded by prison director Harry Parlington (Serge Houde, eerily cool and the perfect foil to the many personas of his short-term guest). Soaring to the seldom-scaled heights of James Dean (cross-reference below), Dupuis joins the ranks of the very few actors that have the versatility and range to push the complete emotional spectrum far off the screen and into a deeply personal shared experience with all who voyeuristically watch his final gasps.
From their first encounter with its “chance to see each other’s good side,” the stage is set for what appears to be a cat-and-mouse struggle for control between authority and the condemned. Barlow’s last wish is to have the institutional videotapes of his final hours forwarded to his mother. The request isn’t covered in the prison’s policy and procedures. Parlington can decide on his own, but lacks a “cover your ass” regulation in case his decision is ever challenged.
Let the games begin!
Till death do us tape
After the scotch-needy Doctor Lowe (Vlasta Vrana who can look but not kill—“it’s unethical for a doctor to participate [directly]”) pronounces the success of the injection, Parlington retires to his office to dictate the regulation-required closure letter to Barlow’s mother. But, like a master writer or composer, he is unable to “get it right” and so calls “cut” to himself and rerecords the deadly sequence of events again and again and again. Is it himself or the grieving mother that necessitates the re-writes?
In every version, Barlow is offered food for self (as chef, Gregory Hlady serves up a veritable buffet with much subtle style and the patience of Job as required) and food for thought. Indeed, Father Preston (Tony Robinow) offers spiritual salvation to both men, but like all consultants sees most of his suggestions spurned or ignored.
When the Saints Go Marching Out
In one sequence Barlow demands backgammon be played. Parlington acquiesces and is trounced by the damned competitor. But when the reality sinks in that this contest will never be repeated, Barlow rolls the dice alone and takes the corresponding number of steps to the gurney that will be his bed to eternity. The death rattle metaphor of the unpredictable results is as discreet as it is telling. So too is Éric Pfalzgraf’s score as it incorporates all manner of percussion to add an aural dimension to the prison bars, invokes the afterlife to come with a haunting, oozing male chorus, infects the nerves and raises the degree of tension considerably with cymbal and brush and inoculates the chilled environment with an ironic and joyous Dixieland band: marvellous at every turn.
“Everyone goes with me”
Barlow’s words, in the context of the daily Iraq death report and DNA-exonerated “killers,” go right to the heart of the film’s subtext of how a final passing is recorded, reshaped then filed. There will be some who find, like knock-off designer apparel, too many trips to the final solution. And at times the pace and flow do stagnate. Others will balk at Parlington’s near one-dimensional delivery and executive secretaries world wide will know that a dictation never ends with the boss reiterating his own name, position and company. But few will deny the moments of extraordinary power and unease when death is brought deliberately to a man whose crime we never knew. JWR