Dead Man Walking (1995) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for rape, violence, and language
Running time: 122 min.
Cast: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky, Raymond J. Berry, R. Lee Ermey, Celia Weston, Lois Smith, Jack Black
Cameo: Clancy Brown, Peter Sarsgaard
Director: Tim Robbins
Screenplay: Tim Robbins (based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean)
Review published March 20, 2009
A magnificent effort all around by Tim Robbins (Bob Roberts, Cradle Will Rock), both as writer and director, very loosely adapting this book of the same name from real-life nun (and later an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty), Sister Helen Prejean, an unlikely choice to be the spiritual advisor for a convicted murderer/rapist. Stellar Academy Award-nominated performances bolster an already dynamite story, ranking among the finest in the estimable careers of Susan Sarandon (Little Women, Thelma & Louise) and Sean Penn (State of Grace, Fast Times at Ridgemont High). Sarandon would go on to win the Best Actress Oscar, in a role that required her not to be flashy or overly emotional, but vulnerable and caring. Her partner Robbins would get a nomination of his own for his directorial turn.
Although the film is, at its heart, a repudiation of the death penalty system, the events aren't sugar coated, only humanized. As the lawyers in the film state, it's easy to execute a monster, but not so much a human being. Penn's Matthew Poncelet had been deemed a monster, seen as a rapist and murderer of defenseless teenagers on the verge of the happiest moments of their lives. His demeanor in the courtroom not only showed he had no remorse for his actions, he seemed to enjoy getting the goat of the families he victimized. His death sentence was secured, and though he continues to deny that he was the one who committed the deeds (Poncelet claims he merely witnessed the events perpetrated by his partner in crime, and did nothing to stop it), his racist diatribes have done nothing to help his case in postponing the date of his execution for an appeal.
Poncelet isn't shown as being wronged, or even as the kind of human being anyone would want as a neighbor, but Robbins doesn't paint him as a good person. He is quite revolting much of the time, and while not 100% evil, when one sees the acts that he and his partner commit, it's difficult to imagine such a person ever being allowed to set foot outside as a free man ever again, regardless of whether he is rehabilitated. But should he get the death penalty, even assuming that he actually did commit the acts for which he had been convicted? It's a dilemma that will continue to split many Americans, both with good cause on each side.
Sister Helen is a nun working on making the world a little better by teaching in the housing projects of New Orleans. She receives a return message from convict Matthew Poncelet that he wants to meet her, an invitation that she accepts, though with some skepticism. After their meeting, in which he proclaims his innocence of the severe charges, she makes it her personal mission to see that Poncelet gets a second chance in the legal system, but finds the judicial avenues difficult, if not impossible. The two soon form a bond of friendship that culminates with her becoming his spiritual advisor, but the families of the victims make her question if what she's doing is right, as they feel that she should be helping them and not some hardened, unrepentant murderer.
The message of the film is that, regardless of what one has done in life, there is always a chance for redemption, it the perpetrator of the heinous acts can finally come face to face with the severity of his actions, and be truly repentant. Matthew Poncelet eventually does come to grips with his inner demons, which he would continuously let out because causing harm seems much easier for him to do than in accepting any form of responsibility for anything. He's a follower, easily led astray, whether through his brutish friends or by the prison's Aryan brotherhood. He can't seem to think for himself, because that would require him thinking about who he is and what he's done.
The heart of the matter is that love and mercy should be unconditional, and would make the world a far better place than revenge, hatred and death. Sister Helen emulates her own spiritual advisor, Jesus, in the rehabilitative mercy shown by Jesus among the thieves, prostitutes and murderers, giving a positive influence to those who've only felt negative their entire lives. Just as they were led astray by those with even more hatred in their heart, these souls can be led back to normalcy when exerting a more caring posture, though that does come with the realization and shame for those acts which have impacted others in the most severe of ways. Acceptance of one's flaws and sins is far more difficult than continuing them.
Dead Man Walking deals with some very serious issues in a delicate and respectful manner. With such an incendiary story, it would have been easy for a director to go for high levels of dramatics in order to impact the audience. The depictions of the actual crimes committed are done from a distance, and the victims are only known through the reflections of the families that continue on to seek justice after their untimely departure from the world. Highly emotional scenes are subdued, sometimes agonizingly, as the players do what they can to keep their composure, not wanting to expose themselves to letting others see just how wrought they are over what they are feeling. Sarandon's eye contact with Poncelet practically never wavers, while his is never quite in tune. Robbins lets two very fine actors bring out the personalities underneath the characterizations, and the emotional payoff is sincere and well earned.
Dead Man Walking may not change the opinions of those who believe in the death penalty as a state-sanctioned form of punishment for the severest of acts against humanity, but it does explore the issue without insulting them for their beliefs. Many death row inmates may never own up to their actions, and if Poncelet were never shown to have remorse, it's doubtful there would be much of a story here worth telling. However, this is not a cynical film, and even the most hardened of hearts can be reached, if one is willing to spend the time and take the care to try to figuratively exorcise the demons within the criminal. Poncelet, through his actions, was reaching out for salvation, even if it only served his self interests much of the time. He never feels he is deserving of death, regardless of what he's done, but does come to the conclusion, finally, that taking responsibility for one's actions is the right course, even if he feels that what's being done to him is wrong.
Robbins' masterwork doesn't preach itself, but rather, lets the story tell its own tale, take it or leave it. It doesn't see the penal system as corrupt or evil. It merely posits the question on whether it is right for anyone, no matter how egregious the sins, to have the book slammed shut on their redemption.
©2009 Vince Leo