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Manners of Dying - Again, and Again, and Again

It's hard to watch someone die. It's even harder to watch someone executed, repeatedly, for two hours. Especially when Beowulf and Grendel (featuring my crush du jour Gerard Butler) plays in the adjacent theatre.

Jeremy Peter Allen's directorial debut, Manners of Dying, based on the Yann Martel short story, focuses on the relationship between death row prisoner Kevin Barlow and the prison director Harry Parlington, when, in the hours before execution, Barlow makes an unusual last request. The ability to grant or refuse the request creates an unusual and uncomfortable intimacy between the warden and prisoner.(I won't spoil the surprise).

The film begins with big, clangy, melodramatic piano, the kind Monty Python often mocks. It seemed an odd choice, given how small the physical world of the film is. All action takes place in the cell, Parlington's office, and the execution chamber, or the hallways between.

The journey from Barlow's arrival at the prison to the execution is narrated by Parlington, as he composes a letter to the convict's mother. The first trip took about 30 minutes, at which point I wondered how they'd fill the rest of the time.

Turns out, they repeat the whole thing, each time changing the last meal and Barlow's reaction to his approaching death. With each repetition, Parlington's impending decision about the last request is coloured and complicated by the arguments, insults, and behaviors Barlow throws at him.

As a student, I was taught the rule of three - everything, in narrative, is supposed to happen in threes.

Allen chucks that rule out the window.

I glanced at my watch when we reached execution number four. The film finished on eight or nine.

I appreciate being willing to break the rules, and how unflinching Allen is portraying the variety of ways people can 'go'. That said, I was done at three.

I started watching mechanically, appreciating Roy Dupuis' dramatic range, Serge Houde's subtlety, and the way Gregory Hlady managed to lighten the tone with his inventiveness and humour as the cook. I saw the pieces instead of the whole.

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The acting is uniformly impressive. Dupuis commits fully to each character shift without losing the connection to the identity of Kevin Barlow. Houde's face flickers minutely as he guards his thoughts and maintains tight composure. Allen's camera work is subtle, with simple, effective framing which makes excellent use of his actors' expressions. The score unfortunately draws attention to itself, as if trying to force more drama into scenes than they need.

Thematically, the film was very effective, (thankfully without bludgeoning home the point). You can't watch someone get executed, painlessly or not, nine times without feeling a certain queasiness. The hardest episode to watch, for me, is when Barlow vehemently proclaims his innocence, thrashing around, fighting until the very last moment. I have a real discomfort with needles, and his struggle causes some serious spurting around the inside of his elbow, which is frankly nauseating.

The strength of the film is its' simplicity - with few characters, conflicts or locations, Barlow and Parlington fill the story with the weight of their situation. Allen allows their story to raise ethical and moral questions without attempting to provide a simple answer.

Although I didn't have much patience with the repetition in the film, many of its' images are seared in my mind, and the questions presented by story continue to simmer.

In any case, it's far more intelligent and interesting than Elizabethtown, and it's Canadian.

Incidentally, in Canada, the death penalty was abolished in 1976.


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