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Review: 'On Death Row' talks to killers

James Barnes is one of the death row

James Barnes is one of the death row inmates interviewed by Academy-Award nominated filmmaker Werner Herzog in "On Death Row" makes its world premiere on Investigation Discovery, premiering March 9, 2012. Photo Credit: Investigation Discovery/


WHEN|WHERE Premieres Friday at 10 p.m. on ID

REASON TO WATCH How else can you talk one-on-one with a convicted killer, in a death-row chat, as he calmly explains his life and crimes?

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Veteran German director Werner Herzog, who's won 40 years of raves from "Fitzcarraldo" to "Grizzly Man," got more hosannas for last fall's documentary "Into the Abyss." Its clear-eyed assessment of a Texas triple homicide and the emotional aftermath stirred Herzog to peer even deeper into the abyss of the human soul.

This four-week series is the starkly revealing result -- the voice of Herzog calmly, but not dispassionately, questioning five death-row prisoners like the premiere's James Barnes. He's a Florida inmate whose multiple murders Herzog describes as "monstrous, scary, definitively evil. However, he does not seem to be a monster."

What is he? An abused kid, yes. A kid who was early into arson and animal abuse. An adult who plotted self-described "ugly, brutal" murders and carried them out. "There are other crimes out there that I've committed that I've never been held accountable for," Barnes says tantalizingly.

And Herzog's line of questioning follows him down, down, down ...

MY SAY Whew. Barnes is a piece of work. And Herzog doggedly picks that piece apart, with quiet inquiries, politely prompting him to continue, to expose not just the facts, but his attitudes, motivations, even his aim in being interviewed.

Despite admitting he must "respectfully disagree" with capital punishment, Herzog is no apologist. Listening to Barnes, he serenely informs him, "does not necessarily mean that I have to like you."

Unlike most "true crime" TV, Herzog keeps his camera still. His use of music is sparing. There's no quick-cutting or "expert" commentary (though he also speaks with Barnes' twin sister and his counsel).

It's fascinating to hear what these dead men walking (plus one woman) have to say -- whether it's enlightening, self-serving or seemingly tangential. Those choices tell us plenty. As do Herzog's probing responses.

BOTTOM LINE No matter where you stand on the death-penalty debate, this is must-watch revelation -- and, thanks to Herzog, tense and suspenseful drama.


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