Dead Man Walking (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Not since Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing has a motion picture about capital punishment been so disturbing and compelling. Dead Man Walking has appropriated a controversial subject by giving pain and personality to both sides of the issue. Writer/director Tim Robbins (Bob Roberts) recognizes that there are no clear-cut answers, and, as a result, his script is never skewed or one-sided.

As a film about capital punishment, Dead Man Walking is effective, but the true brilliance of this picture is that it deals with so much more. Touching such universal themes as revenge and redemption, crime and punishment, and fear and salvation, the movie explores the relationship between Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), a convicted rapist/murderer on death row, and his spiritual advisor, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon). The bond that develops between them is, paradoxically, both exceedingly complex and deceptively simple, and Robbins, with considerable help from his actors, captures it perfectly. Dead Man Walking could easily be manipulative or exploitative, but it's neither. Instead, this is hard-hitting drama that neither accepts nor offers quarter.

Sean Penn, in a remarkable performance, brings Matthew to life. For his accomplishment here, Penn deserves consideration alongside Nicolas Cage and Jonathan Pryce for a Best Actor nomination. There's never any doubt that Matthew was involved in the crime for which he is going to die, although he denies pulling the trigger. And Dead Man Walking doesn't attempt to portray him as a wrongly accused innocent man or someone misunderstood by society. He's a nasty piece of work -- an arrogant, trash-talking racist. But, beneath all the bluster, he's lonely and frightened, as Helen discovers when she starts to probe.

Sarandon's Catholic nun is at the focal point of Dead Man Walking -- and it's a performance to match her co-star's for aptness and intensity. Helen is the one we identify with, and the person around which all the moral and spiritual crises revolve. How can she lend comfort to someone like Matthew Poncelet? How can she, as a servant of God, refuse? And, if she remains firm in her resolve to stand by his side, how can she face the parents of the murdered boy and girl? Dead Man Walking knows the right questions, but there are no easy answers, as Helen quickly discovers. She is exposed to everyone's pain: Matthew's ("Sister, you're all I've got"), his family's, and that of the victims' relatives (looking for "simple justice for their unbearable loss"). It's almost more than one woman can bear, but Helen is strong -- strong enough to offer love to one of the most detestable human beings she has ever met.

Ultimately, the questions come back to capital punishment. They're all familiar. Is Matthew going to be executed because he was too poor to hire a fat-cat lawyer ("Ain't nobody with money on death row")? Is there a moral difference when the State kills as opposed to an individual? Should justice be based on the "eye for an eye" edict or the one that says to "turn the other cheek"? In his 1988 film, A Short Film About Killing, Kieslowski asked the same things in a much different manner. Like Robbins, he arrived at certain conclusions, but -- also like Robbins -- he didn't force them on the audience. There's no preaching in either film. Only in subtle details does it becomes clear that neither director can condone the government taking a life.

I defy anyone to sit unaffected through Dead Man Walking. This is as powerful as motion pictures get, yet, like all great films, it doesn't descend into a valley of spiritual gloom. There are moments of comic relief, and, even if some of the humor is of the gallows variety, it keeps this two-hour odyssey from becoming unbearably intense. Although this is only his second directorial outing, actor-turned-film maker Robbins has clearly mastered his craft. There's no sophomore jinx here.

Dead Man Walking refers to what the people on death row are called as they take that final walk towards their execution. It's ironic that a film with this title should be among the most vital, alive, and challenging cinema experiences of the year.

Dead Man Walking (United States, 1995)

Ranked #4 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1996
Run Time: 2:02
U.S. Release Date: 1996-01-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1