Sold as a clash between two opposing viewpoints, My Days of Mercy (viewed at TIFF 2017) is in fact staunchly against capital punishment, but makes an unusual argument for that position. Instead of focussing on whether the condemned man is guilty or innocent, and whether it’s wrong to make him suffer either way, the screenplay, written by Joe Barton, dramatizes the pain and horror of his family — people who haven’t committed any crime, but have to wait for a loved one to be killed, knowing there’s nothing they can do to stop it.
Lucy (Ellen Page) is a professional demonstrator who travels to executions across the country to protest the death penalty. Although it initially seems that her obsession is based on principle alone, we soon learn that Lucy’s father is on death row for murdering her mother, making Lucy a victim of the original crime, as well as of the sentence that will take her father’s life.
While Lucy’s sister, Martha (Amy Seimetz) is convinced of their father’s innocence, Lucy, who was only a teenager at the time of the killing, has her doubts while understanding that overturning the guilty verdict is the only way to save his life. Her presence in the line of chanting protesters is a form of prayer — a ritual repetition of words and action that she hopes will somehow bring her torment to an end.
Lucy’s foil and eventual love interest is the conservative Mercy (Kate Mara), a woman who initially shows up with a wave of counter-protesters who’ve come to celebrate what they see as an act of justice. Mercy honestly believes that being able to watch an execution will bring the victims a sense of peace and closure, and goes so far as saying she wants Lucy to have the same good feeling when her mother’s killer is dead. Once they’ve stumbled into a low-key courtship, Mercy uses her legal connections in an attempt to prove Lucy’s father’s innocence and sidestep the awkward question of how she will feel if he’s guilty.
The latter half of the film at times feels padded with a subplot about homophobia. Lucy is suddenly a pariah in her town because the girls she went to high school with know she’s a lesbian. The secretive Mercy is hiding a boyfriend at home and lectures that Lucy can’t “decide for [her]” when it’s time to come out of the closet. None of it seems related to the central plot, and could have been left on the cutting room floor.
The parts of the film that stay focussed on the death penalty, though, are outstanding. As an indictment of the death penalty, the most unsettling aspect of My Days of Mercy is in how it presents the terrifying orderliness of taking a human life. The procedures, and hearings, and paperwork, and timelines, and the painful lack of difference that any amount of screaming while carrying a placard is going to make.
The inside of the prison system isn’t dramatized at all aside from a series of vignettes in which the final meal requested by each condemned prisoner briefly appears on screen. What begins as an impersonal curiosity takes on a staggering power once the prisoner becomes someone we know and, just by showing us plates and trays, director Tali Shalom-Ezer is able to pull us inside that terrible moment — the moment of seeing your last meal, of choosing it, of planning, and waiting, and knowingly walking to death on the day your life ends.
No matter how much lip service it gives to Mercy’s point of view, and to the idea that a reasonable person could believe it, the film uses a similar series of almost unbearably ordinary scenes to force us to live inside the crawling, suffocating horror of watching as the machinery of the state slowly and deliberately murders one of its citizens. This is not an accident or a crime of passion – this is a cold-blooded, impersonal, calculated act that takes years to plan.
I grew up in a country that effectively ended execution 20 years before I was born, and it’s very easy to sell me on the idea that the death penalty is wrong. Films like The Life of David Gale (Alan Parker, 2003) get under my skin, because they seem to take for granted that the only presumed problem with state execution is that an innocent man might be killed. I also recognize that films about the suffering of the guilty don’t move everyone. That’s why we need films like My Days of Mercy, to remind us that no one is alone in the world — that when the state kills someone, regardless of what that person’s done, it’s killing someone who was loved. The pain doesn’t wash away because prosecutors are satisfied that what they’ve allowed to happen is right.
A horror movie and a love story in its own right, My Days of Mercy is a new take on an old but pressing issue, rooted more in deeply emotions than philosophical arguments.