If you were going to die tomorrow, what would your last meal be? Would you wish for your mother’s homemade cooking or be satisfied with Burger King? Would you try to eat as much as you could before you go or be content with a single Heineken? It’s a heavy question, one that most people may think is easy to answer. In reality, the question itself is horrifying.
What is the final feast you will have before you die? Last Meal looks into that very topic from the perspective of death row inmates and their final meals before meeting their end. It’s a morbid topic, to be sure. Some people may find this documentary to be dark in how bluntly it presents and talks about death. In the eyes of the documentary, its purpose seems to begin and end with telling you about death row inmates’ last meals. No more, no less.
If you’re up for that extreme niche of a concept, then you’ll find Last Meal a tantalizing offer. It’s a limited audience to be sure, but one that I just so happen to fall into.
Director: Marcus McKenzie/Daniel Principe
Release Date: June 9, 2021 (Tribeca Film Festival)
The death penalty is a controversial topic in many circles, with different sides arguing about its validity and its humanity. Last Meal only briefly touches on those ideas, saving them for the very last few minutes of its brief 18 minute run time. That discussion comes as an aside about former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia justifying its implementation due to a then high profile case when the perpetrator was going to be executed shortly. Cut to a black screen telling us that person was innocent and exonerated decades later as an innocent man. And that’s all the movie really has to say about the validity of capital punishment.
It almost makes it feel like the documentary forgot what point it was trying to make. The film eventually lands on pointing out how many death row inmates were eventually exonerated for their crimes, albeit once the deed has been done. Innocent people were put to death and Last Meal just states it as it is without any fanfare.
It seems like the general discussions surrounding it aren’t too interesting to the directors, with them, instead, focusing on what these dead men and women walking decided to eat before they died. We’re barraged from frame one, watching a piece of fried chicken being deep-fried, only to zoom out and reveal how it was a part of John Wayne Gacy’s last meal. The film then meticulously goes into detail about the arrangements for his final meal, his final words, and even the specific amount of food he requested.
Now rinse and repeat this approach for the over a dozen different convicts that are described and you pretty much have the entirety of the documentary. Here is an inmate, sometimes they discuss what their crime was, and here’s their last meal and how much they ate of it. Usually, you learn a lot of nifty facts from it, like how the slogan for Nike was inspired by the final words of an inmate, or that conservative states are more likely to offer last meal requests due to biblical connections. There’s even a segment about how an inmate’s final words were to complain to the press about how he requested Spaghetti-O’s as his last meal and instead received a plate of spaghetti.
Most of the time it’s like you’re watching a documentary that’s the equivalent of a Fact of the Day calendar on last meal requests, but man is it a fascinating look into it. Through its brief duration, I couldn’t turn away from learning about why people selected the food they did for their last meals. Why did Adolf Eichmann, one of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, only request an Israeli wine before he died? Was it some kind of atonement of his crimes, or something else, and why did he leave it half-finished? Regardless, having these historical fun facts narrated by Hugh Ross of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford fame makes it captivating. Plus having these final meals shown in such gorgeous depictions can even make prison cafeteria food look like a delicious meal.
No matter how you slice it though, Last Meal is a niche documentary that doesn’t really have much to say besides “there’s a lot of history behind the last meal requests of prisoners.” And you know what, I have to appreciate a documentary that is dead set on doing exactly what it set out to do. The best thing I can always say about a movie is that I want more of it, and I want more of Last Meal. 18 minutes is too short a time with a concept as unique as this, and maybe with some additional stories, there could be some extra meat put onto the bones of this film. As is, Last Meal is a limited curiosity that is worth a watch if you’re into some bleak historical factoids.