SXSW: "Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Words" keeps audience uneasy, but not much else

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of SXSW

On a Halloween night in Amarillo, Texas in 1982, 76-year-old nun Sister Tadea Benz was found raped and murdered in her bedroom.

In the hyper-religious community, it’s local troublemaker Johnny Frank Garrett (Devin Bonnee) who is accused of committing the heinous crime. Beginning their deliberation with a prayer, the jurors convince Adam, the only holdout, that despite the lack of consistent evidence, Garrett had to have done it.

Based on true events,”Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Words” takes off when Garrett writes a letter cursing everyone involved with his death sentence just before his lethal injection.

Following his curse, a mysterious string of deaths strikes the town. Fearing for the safety of his family, Adam (Mike Doyle) sets out to prove Garrett’s innocence.

Though the film draws from Jesse Quackenbush’s 2008 documentary “The Last Word,” it dramatizes some events, forcing the movie to become a half-baked thriller instead of a potentially intriguing look at an innocent man on death row and the town that convicted him.

The film succeeds in imparting its audience with a constant sense of unease.

Garrett’s curse acts like a disease, infecting those who participated in his trial with deadly psychosis or unexplained maladies. Sometimes though, the attempts to convey the madness of the cursed victims goes too far, making certain scenes laughably bizarre.

As the film goes on, Adam becomes the hero, with the audience supporting him in his journey to find Garrett innocent while everything begins crashing down around him.

He travels from person to person, finding clues that prove Garrett had nothing to do with the crime. Here, the film makes another critical misstep — brushing over evidence that prove Garrett’s  innocence. Because the film focuses on the curse, rather than its namesake, it turns the audience against Garrett and paints him as a demonic figure hellbent on revenge.

This choice is made even more disappointing for those who look into the real-life events that inspired the film. Garrett’s tragic past of abuse within his community and family makes the lack of evidence surrounding his conviction dumbfounding and upsetting — something far more compelling than an alleged curse.

“Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word” doesn’t truly have the potential to terrify until the last few minutes of the film. The most chilling moments occur when a list of the real people who mysteriously died in Amarillo crawls across the screen. Then, Garrett’s voice rings out as he reads his letter cursing them to hell.

In the end, the film is just a collection of missed opportunities. The fear doesn’t last long, leaving the audience with a few scares and cheap stunts to incite terror.

“Johnny Frank Garrett’s Last Word”
Runtime: 95 mins
Rating: 2/5 stars