Last Requests

By Courtenay Johnson | Drama
A woman cooks the last meals for death row inmates. But tonight's dish is her last.

Maggie, a cook working in the kitchen of a Texas prison, prepares a delicious, home-cooked dinner — chicken with all the fixings — for a mass murderer scheduled for execution the next day. It’s not only the last meal for the death row prisoner — it’s also the last one that Maggie will ever prepare since the last meal program is being abolished by the state the next day.

She goes through an enormous outlay of effort, time and care to prepare the meal. One of her co-workers is skeptical of Maggie’s efforts for a man who opened fire in a schoolyard and killed many young children, but the cook justifies it as an act of comfort for a man about to leave the land of the leaving and takes pride in her skill and work ethic.

But when her kindness doesn’t land as intended, the cook reveals perhaps that there’s more at work underneath her dignity and generosity than it seems.

Writer-director Courtenay Johnson’s powerful, quietly provocative drama functions initially as a character portrait of sorts, portraying the work and effort of a behind-the-scenes worker in what many call the prison industrial complex. Coming from this seemingly peripheral position, it offers a subtle exploration of loaded yet ambiguous subjects like incarceration, capital punishment, mercy, justice and our own ulterior motives behind our beliefs.

Shot with a muted yet rich naturalism and written with a viewpoint that privileges character and environment, the visuals take us through part of a prison’s inner workings, and the service workers offer a fascinating perspective on the role they — and by proxy, prisons in general — play in the U.S. judicial system, and in the process of justice in general. The storytelling isn’t driven necessarily by event and action, but more the inner rhythms and emotional tides of the main character.

Actress Dale Dickey essays the role of Maggie, offering a distinctive, multi-layered, and deeply sympathetic portrayal of a complex character. At first, Maggie seems like a down-home, almost folksy character who ekes out dignity and pride to her livelihood. But underneath the persona is a powerful, interlocking knot of inner defenses, true convictions and powerful but marginalized emotional undercurrents.

When Maggie discovers the fate of her last meal, and it isn’t received in the spirit in which it was intended, it seems to loosen up deep reservoirs of emotion and memory, making for a quiet yet devastating denouement, not just for her work but also for her unresolved feelings.

“Last Requests” riffs off the actual demise of the last meal program in Texas in 2011, when a notorious inmate on death row for an infamous hate crime ordered a large, extravagant meal for his last meal and refused to eat it when it was served, saying that he wasn’t hungry. Taking this as a jumping-off point, the short offers an indelible, poignant portrait of a woman who finds pride in her work, despite its proximity to a difficult, thorny issue, as well as the unspoken unfinished business of her own life.

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