Given the long and not always glorious tradition of death-row melodramas, not to mention the unabashed and frequently expressed liberalism of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, you may walk into Dead Man Walking with the cocksure assurance of someone who knows exactly what to expect. If you do so, it only means that, in addition to ending up being deeply moved, you'll end up being surprised.
This is a powerful and provocative film -- not quite a work of art, maybe, but close enough to demand your respectful attention. In a dramatic shift from Bob Roberts, the corrosively funny but ultimately facile satire that was his first effort as a writer/director, Robbins here takes a rigorously serious and thoughtful approach to his material, wisely refraining from cheap shots, stock characters and easy answers. This is a rare drama about capital punishment that actually dares to suggest that, all things considered, the world might be a better place once the condemned convict at the center of the story is put to death. Still, the question lingers: do we, as members of a society that supposedly prides itself on decency and justice, have the right to kill anyone, even a killer?
Or to put it another way: is it truly possible to heed the admonishment of Jesus Christ (among others) to hate the sin but love the sinner?
That question is of more than academic interest to Sister Helen Prejean, the social-activist nun played with impressive grace, intelligence and human frailty by Sarandon. Sister Helen is a real person, and Dead Man Walking is based on her acclaimed memoir of the same title. (Robbins has taken some dramatic license in his adaptation, compressing events and characters while remaining true to the essence of her story.) Sarandon's performance is on one level a respectful tribute to this formidable woman. Yet it is by no means a deification. Sarandon's Sister Helen goes about the business of doing God's work with compassion, efficiency and humor, but she's prone to doubt, dread and feelings of unworthiness. It's one thing to help the poor and underprivileged black residents of a New Orleans housing project; it is something else, something far more challenging, to serve as spiritual adviser to a brazenly racist and seemingly irredeemable convict awaiting execution at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Sean Penn plays the convicted killer, Matthew Poncelet, a composite of two men who figure prominently in the real Sister Helen's book. When he first appears behind a partition in the prison visiting room -- sleazily feral, grotesquely tattooed, intimidating even in manacles -- the audience can't help but share Sister Helen's discomfort. This is a thoroughly nasty piece of white trash, and it's to Penn's credit that, even after Matthew begins to lower his guard and trust Sister Helen, the actor never tries to soften the character. Matthew insists that he's innocent, of course, but his words have the hollow ring of a desperate scam by a smalltime con artist. Even Sister Helen isn't entirely convinced.
The prison chaplain (played, ironically, by Scott Wilson, who was one of the killers in In Cold Blood) doesn't believe anything Matthew says. And he's even less convinced by Sister Helen's insistence that she can handle the rigors of dealing with a death row inmate. Even as he repeatedly reminds her that her primary responsibility is to get the convict to accept Jesus Christ as his savior, the chaplain also warns her not to get too close to Matthew.
Not surprisingly, Sister Helen ignores the warning, and does her best to bring Matthew out of his shell. What is surprising is her admonishment to Matthew that simply expressing his faith in God's forgiveness isn't enough. If he genuinely wants redemption, she tells him, he has to work for it -- just like an idealistic nun has to work if she wants to translate Christ's words into action.
After many years of movies in which religious people, ministers and laymen alike, have been treated as buffoons, hypocrites or worse, Dead Man Walking is almost subversive in the way it depicts Sister Helen as the real thing. She has long periods of self-doubt, but it is her own ability, not God's love, that she comes to question. And her compassion is by no means limited to the convict she wants to comfort. Matthew and another man have been convicted of an especially heinous crime: after finding a couple parked in a secluded area, they allegedly raped the young woman, then killed her and her boyfriend. So Sister Helen considers it her duty not just to help the men who are incarcerated, but also to offer comfort and sympathy to the victims' parents, despite their understandable eagerness to see Matthew executed.
And Robbins considers it his duty, as a moviemaker and a human being, to convey the grief and rage of these parents without any attempt to turn them into vengeful monsters. One of the fathers, Clyde Percy, is played by R. Lee Ermey, whom you may remember as the fearsome DI in Full Metal Jacket and, more recently, as the guy who brusquely rebuffs Elisabeth Shue's come-on in Leaving Las Vegas. In Dead Man Walking, Ermey is brutally effective when Clyde angrily upbraids Sister Helen for offering solace to "an animal." But even during this exchange, neither Ermey nor Robbins do anything to deny Clyde's tragic humanity. His fury is given the same weight as the sad-eyed resignation demonstrated by the other father, Earl Delacroix, who's played with marvelous subtlety and dignity by Raymond J. Barry. No matter how you feel about capital punishment, you'll be given pause by the question Robbins throws at his audience: who dares to judge either of these men?
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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.