Dead Man Walking
Screenplay : Tim Robbins (based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J.)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1995
Stars : Susan Sarandon (Sister Helen Prejean), Sean Penn (Matthew Poncelet), Robert Prosky (Hilton Barber), Raymond J. Barry (Earl Delacroix), R. Lee Ermey (Clyde Percy), Celia Weston (Mary Beth Percy)
And so feel most opponents of the death penalty, including Tim Robbins, the writer-director of "Dead Man Walking," one of the first films to openly tackle this issue. But you wouldn't know Robbins' politics from watching the film because he does the audience the service of not preaching his side. Instead, he presents both sides of the issue fairly and openly, allowing the viewers to decide for themselves. Robbins isn't so arrogant as to think that his film can answer such a substantial and controversial issue, but he does see that the film medium can be used as a tool to carefully and honestly explore it.
The film is based on the real life experiences of Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon in one of her most affecting roles) and her relationship with a death row inmate, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn, easily proving that he is one of America's most underrated actors).
Poncelet first contacts Sister Helen through the mail, where he asks for someone to talk to. Although he does need this comfort, it becomes quickly obvious that he also desires legal assistance to avoid his impending execution. Sister Helen tries to help him despite her own confusion brought on by her inexperience in such matters and the conflicting opinions of everyone around her, from the victims' families to her own fellow nuns.
Although Poncelet continually denies ever having actually pulled the trigger, it is an undisputed fact that he was an accomplice to the ghastly murder and rape of two innocent teenagers. Robbins intersperes graphic moments of the murder throughout the film, and for good reason. In order to fairly portray why the families of the victims are so vengeful and full of hate, the audience has to see what they were forced to go through. The grief stricken parents of the murder victims are horrified that Sister Helen would take sides with such a vicious man. One father calls Poncelet an animal, then takes it back by saying, "No, animals don't rape and kill their own kind."
Sean Penn portrays Mathew Poncelet in a completely convincing fashion, forcing the audience to waver between sympathy and downright derision. Poncelet comes from a caring but poor family, so he can't really blame his background for making him a criminal. He is full of hate and anger and blatant racism. He constantly denies responsibility for the murders, blaming drugs and pressures from his accomplice. Because the audience knows that he will be executed, it is readily apparent that Poncelet's only hope for redemption is to own up to what he did and take responsibility for his actions.
He asks Sister Helen to be his spiritual adviser for the last six days of his life. As the execution date grows nearer, the film's tension builds until the excruciating climax where Poncelet's death by lethal injection is shown in such detail that it makes the viewer feel like he is in the room. Robbins does go a bit overboard making Poncelet look like a martyr; but at the same time, he cuts between the execution and the murder, showing the relationship between the two. He doesn't make it clear whether the relationship is right or wrong, he just shows that there is one. The film could have been better if it had ended at this point, but there are a few scenes tacked on the end that give it a more upbeat ending.
The production itself is purposely minimal. Most of the film deals with character development, and Robbins uses tight close-ups to portray the action. Sister Helen and Poncelet are always separated by glass or iron bars, and Robbins always makes sure that the audience realizes that. But, by using reflections in the glass and focusing past the bars, he makes the audiences realize that they are growing together spiritually even though they are physically apart until the last moment before the execution.
"Dead Man Walking" is a strong, thought-provoking film. It is less of a story than it is an experience, something you feel compelled to talk about when you leave the theater. It is also one of the deepest human films in a long time, one that doesn't back down from baring the human soul and exploring the vastness of its complexities.
Reprinted with permission The Baylor Lariat