Review: God Save Texas: Hometown Prison | Sundance 2024

Score: B

Director: Richard Linklater

Running Time: 87 min

Rated: NR

For many, the name Richard Linklater and Texas go hand in hand, primarily because the director has spent much of his film career portraying the state on screen in films like Dazed and Confused and Bernie. It’s no surprise that Linklater directs the first episode of a new three-episode anthology series based on Lawrence Wright’s 2018 book God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State. Linklater’s episode, Hometown Prison, is both a reflection on what it was like to grow up in a prison town and a deeper look at how the death penalty affects the state and its citizens.

Having lived there in the seventies, Linklater seems pleased to reminisce through town with current friends like author Lawrence Wright and old pals from his high school and college days who still live there. He admits that he didn’t think of the prison at all when he was growing up, much like most of the local population. In exploring why he and others felt that way, Linklater takes the chance to delve deeper into the Texas prison system and in particular, the death penalty.

It’s a complicated topic, particularly in Texas, and Linklater does a great job of grounding it in his memories and stories. The episode starts with Linklater’s footage of his visit to the prison in 2003 to document protests against the execution of Delma Banks, Jr., placed on death row for a murder in 1980 but with very thin evidence. We then fast forward to today, when people are still protesting the death penalty outside the prison. As he says in a voice-over, the “prison had a gravitational push to it.” So even though the citizens of Huntsville may not think about the prison in their daily lives, his investigation proves it’s always just in the periphery as an essential industry for the town’s economy. That could be locals ending up inside as inmates or guards or the guys that write passes at the local Greyhound bus station. For a while, it meant the Texas Prison Rodeo. From 1931 to 1986 inmates participated in bronco riding, bull riding, and calf roping to raise funds for the prisons.

Linklater seeks out people who have been directly involved with the death penalty to understand their experiences. He speaks to a retired prison guard who strapped inmates to the table and finally had to step away. He also talks to a former communications director who witnessed almost every execution so she could convey the details to the media.  In all of these cases, witnessing executions took a heavy toll on them.  It’s an incredibly heavy topic that weighs on the interviewees, but Linklater does well to intersperse it with moments of levity and hope. He interviews legendary Texas parole lawyer Bill Habern about his decades fighting for prisoner rights and speaks to families as they wait for their relative to be released from prison. He talks to local eccentric George Russell and high school kids full of optimism for the future of Texas. With such intense subject matter, Linklater deftly shifts from serious to light, allowing the audience to absorb his message without feeling obliterated by the end of the episode.

Much like his previous films, Richard Linklater’s love for his home state and his hometown shines through the screen. And like anyone who loves something, he’s unafraid to examine its wrongdoings and ask how it could be better. God Save Texas: Hometown Prison is carefully constructed to examine the death penalty while also exploring the director’s personal history with Huntsville. As any Texan knows, loving Texas can be incredibly complicated and there continue to be few who do it as well as Richard Linklater.

*God Save Texas: Hometown Prison is the first of a three-part non-sequential anthology trilogy directed by three distinct filmmakers.


About Katie Anaya

Katie Anaya