There is a nagging question at the heart of Errol Morris’ latest meditation on the foibles of humanity, MR DEATH. Do we use facts to make up our minds about things, or do we find facts that confirm what he already want to believe? And, more importantly, why do we choose to believe what we believe?
Morris, whose previous work includes THE THIN BLUE LINE and FAST, CHEAP AND OUT OF CONTROL, once again aims his cinematic eye at the fringes of mainstream society, in this case, Fred Leuchter, Jr, a self-styled and self-schooled execution technologist. His niche was designing execution devices, many of which are still in use around the U.S. Morris genius as a filmmaker is that he can take Leuchter with his questionable social skills and unwholesome fixation on death and show you the world from his point of view. You don’t just observe, you understand, and that, whatever your take on capital punishment, is jarring.
If this were all there was to Leuchter’s story it would pack enough grotesque fascination to warrant its 90-minute running time. Leuchter’s analogy between an execution device and a life-support system is at once ridiculous and oddly logical. His childlike delight with the devices themselves, the ghosts that may inhabit them, the absolute certainty of his humanitarian mission are riveting in a low-key but undeniable way. But it’s the turn he makes into notoriety, though, that clinches this as a cautionary tale for the ages. Called upon to determine whether Auschwitz and, by extension, the other Nazi concentration camps were capable of producing the Holocaust provides Leuchter with something he’s never had before — a fan club. Is it truth that motivates Leuchter or is it a need for acceptance that he’s never had? Does he even know?
Morris dwells on the minutiae as well as the big picture, Leuchter’s caffeine habit becomes a cinematic ode to coffee that would do Starbuck’s proud. Morris’ knack, both as an interviewer and a filmmaker, is to take such moments and hold them up as further illumination into his subject’s character. It’s at once a point of common reference with the audience and yet the extremity of Leuchter’s obsession serves to once again separate him from the masses.
Morris’ cinematic eye watches the proceedings dispassionately and then, at the end, he quietly and deftly delivers a twist that should be a delicious death blow to Leuchter’s raison d’etre. And yet Leuchter is unmoved by it. MR DEATH may be Morris’ best film to date. It may also be his most disturbing.