AUSTIN, TEXAS—The South by Southwest Film Festival, which began here Friday night, seems to have a singular purpose this year: advancing the art of lefty muckraking. There’s a film about Bill Clinton’s conservative tormentors and a screed about White House political guru Karl Rove. Another documentary presents the heartwarming tale of a Democrat triumphing over a Republican in a race for the state legislature. The festival’s ambiance is pure Austin: artiness mixed with a kind of desperate liberalism. Bush may carry Texas in November, Austinites seem to be saying, but we can still hold a film festival!
Amid this comes one magnificent piece of agitprop: Death and Texas, a mockumentary about pro football and the death penalty. The setup is classic Texas gonzo: “Barefoot” Bobby Briggs, star wide receiver for the Austin Steers, knocks over a convenience store with a friend and accidentally blows away the clerk. The state sentences him to die by lethal injection, with a caveat: The governor will grant Barefoot a one-day furlough to play in the league’s Super Bowl. If the Steers win, the guv might consider clemency; if not, he will execute Briggs the next day. (“I wouldn’t want to jinx him,” the governor explains.) The picture, which was made for $200,000, is so slick that it transcends propaganda. It’s like something Ring Lardner or Dan Jenkins might have thought up, if they had a political conscience.
Writer-director Kevin DiNovis had only 16 days to shoot, and he hustles his troupe on and off screen. He never lets a joke grow stale. When Barefoot (Steve Harris) rejoins his old teammates, his coach appears to toss out some death-row barbs. “You late, Briggs!” he shrieks. “What are you waiting for, the last rites?” Another coach pops up to declare Briggs’ feats “unprecedented in peacetime high school football.” Briggs’ partner in crime, “Ray Ray” Ellis (Romany Malco), insists he brought a gun to the robbery merely as a “prop.” So why was the gun loaded, an interviewer asks? He deadpans, “You think I’m going to a robbery without a loaded prop?”
DiNovis, who showed Death and Texas at the indie Slamdance Festival, has all the goofy earnestness of a death-penalty opponent. He calls his film “a thinly veiled piece of propaganda.” He says he began writing it after George W. Bush mocked the appeals of Karla Faye Tucker, a Texas woman executed in 1998. But in the film he comes off as anything but a one-note polemicist—he flays both sides. The victim’s mother is a buffoon who blubbers about her dead son. DiNovis even zings the classic death-penalty archetype: the European windbag spouting pro-life platitudes. Here he’s Frenchman named Balthazar de Beauchamp (Jean-Pierre Boccara), author of the preposterously titled book Bastion of Evil.
The film’s straight man is 81-year-old Charles Durning, playing a capital appeals lawyer. Durning does nothing on-screen without a profound sadness; even shifting his massive bulk seems like a trial. He signed on to the picture just 10 days before cameras rolled, but he’s a perfect fit: He has the worry lines of a lifelong do-gooder. Any gravitas he provides is quickly undermined by the nonstop sight gags—say, Briggs running a fly pattern while wearing a tracking bracelet on his ankle.
The big game ends with a smack. Barefoot snags the winning touchdown, but the referee calls him out of bounds. (The sly joke is that football, like capital crime, ultimately comes down to a judgment call.) The film then begins the march toward execution; as producer Stephen Israel puts it, “I don’t think you can engage an audience in the subject of the death penalty if you pull the final punch.” But the filmmakers keep the dark jokes coming. Briggs’ choice for his last meal is Life Savers candy; the warden winces and gives him Jolly Ranchers instead. There’s an eleventh-hour appeal—unfair to reveal here—that mocks death-row cinema with aplomb reminiscent of Robert Altman’s The Player.
The film will likely remain undistributed and therefore unseen by anyone but a few festival-goers. Friday night’s screening, held in a tiny theater called the Alamo Draft House, was half-empty and plagued by audio snafus—much of DiNovis’ dialogue went unheard. Hollywood distributors aren’t exactly itching for death-row comedies. Until it finds a buyer, Death and Texas tours the festival circuit. “I’d like nothing more than to see those two in pine boxes and paupers’ graves,” the film’s prosecutor says of Briggs and the unindicted Ray Ray. “But this isn’t Valhalla—it’s Texas.”