Courtenay Johnson, “Last Requests” (2017)
A sombre character study of a prison worker on her last day in a program that supplies last-request meals to death row inmates just before their executions, “Last Requests” explores and questions the inner lives and motives of people who in their own small ways maintain the prison system in Texas, sometimes with humanity and sometimes not. Widowed Maggie (Dale Dickey) prepares a roast chicken with all the trimmings for a death row prisoner who is to be executed for the mass murder of young children. She lovingly washes, marinates and cooks the bird, and arranges the food neatly on the tray while her co-workers (Lindsay Pulsipher and Michael Abbott Jr) ridicule what she is doing and tell her the inmate does not deserve any kindness or sympathy for what he has done. She persists anyway, telling the co-workers of how her husband was denied a proper last meal in the hospital where he died of an incurable condition. The roast chicken dinner is eventually taken to the prisoner who rejects it.
Through their conversations about the prisoner and his crime, the ending of the last meals request program, and how long Maggie herself has worked in the program (30 years), viewers come to see how Maggie needs the program to justify her own worth in a society that is otherwise indifferent to her existence as well as to the existence of those it spurns. It becomes apparent that she cooks as much for herself as she does for the prisoners she defends to her co-workers. When one co-worker reminds her that young children killed by the inmate deserve consideration, Maggie is at a loss for words. Does she regret never having had any herself? Are the prisoners a substitute for the children she never had? When the roast chicken dinner is returned to the kitchen, Maggie is devastated: could this mean that she finally realises that the system she has served faithfully for 30 years has always taken her for granted and has always treated her as something less than human?
The actors’ performances are naturalistic and the general tone of the film is minimal and subdued. Interspersed with kitchen scenes are scenes of the death row inmate being prepared for his execution by prison guards and taken to the execution room where he will be injected with poisons. In its own way the film is a quiet observer and commentator of US prison culture and its disregard for the people who work in the prison industry and the prisoners the industry processes.