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Death and Doubts

Dead Man Walking finds no easy answers to the hard questions of capital punishment

Of course, there's little doubt about Robbins' own attitude about the death penalty. To him, it's nothing more than state-mandated murder, a view that, near the end, he emphasizes with unfortunate heavy-handedness. As the prison officials prepare Matthew for his lethal injection, in full view of Sister Helen, the grieving parents and a handful of other observers, Robbins cuts away to a horrifying flashback of the original crime. Obviously, it's Robbins' intention to show that both actions are equally reprehensible. I don't think you have to be a hard-core law-and-order advocate to find this equation to be, at best, morally dubious.

At the same time, however, the sequence also serves as a vivid reminder that Matthew, in sharp contrast to most of the condemned men in conventional death row dramas, isn't an innocent lamb being led to the slaughter. (For a moment, he appears in an almost Christlike pose on the gurney where he will meet his fate, but this isn't symbolic hokum -- according to many accounts, this is exactly how convicted killers look just before they get the needle.) And even though Matthew finally does accept responsibility for his actions, Robbins leaves open the question of whether this is sufficient to make amends for the wrong he has done.

Dead Man Walking doesn't make it easy for you to decide what to think or how to react. You have to work just as hard as Matthew and Sister Helen if you want to grapple with the issues that this devastating movie raises.

Dead Man Walking. Directed by Tim Robbins. With Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Rated R. 122 minutes.

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