The phrase "wholesome R-rated movie" is usually the
ultimate oxymoron in Hollywood, but this time it applies. DEAD MAN
WALKING is an intense human drama about two polar opposites--a
convicted murderer on death row (Sean Penn) and a nun (Susan
Sarandon). For once, a Christian movie character is portrayed in a
good light. The nun is a dedicated, caring woman who helps Penn
with his eternal struggles despite ostracism and rejection by her peers
and, most importantly, the parents of the two teens Penn killed.
Penn writes Sarandon a letter asking for her help and, having
taken all those vows, she agrees. At first, he acts the part of a
remorseless convict--refusing to admit he committed the crime, telling
Sarandon she's lookin' mighty good about now (you'd have to be in
prison for quite awhile to think that) and spouting off about the Aryan
nation--but Sarandon's unconditional acceptance eventually gets to
him and he changes his ways.
Much of the movie deals with the various court appeals
Sarandon is involved in on Penn's behalf. Of course, none of the courts
anywhere along the line will overturn the death sentence ruling and, as
the days to Penn's lethal injection execution get closer, he has to accept
the fact that death is inevitable. By the time execution day rolls
around, the audience has collectively been sucked into the movie and
truly cares for Penn's character. If anything, DEAD MAN WALKING's
purpose is to show how even murderers aren't beyond redemption.
Like I said, there are strong Christian overtones in the movie,
which was adapted by Tim Robbins (also the movie's director) from
the autobiographical book written by the actual nun. You'd think ultra-
liberal Robbins and his live-in lover Sarandon, who hijacked the
Oscars a few years ago to preach against General Electric, would
produce a more secularized, New Age-ized story, but thankfully, they
didn't. No matter your religious persuasion, you'll agree leaving the
story in a Christian context is more powerful than if Sarandon had
sermonized Mother Earth or the life force to Penn in the face of death.
DEAD MAN WALKING has the distinction of being the
movie that almost made me cry (and I was pushed over the brink once
I learned the concession stand was out of Jujy-fruits). It really is an
emotionally-charged film that successfully plays on all our human
tendencies. It's an almost-perfect movie from the movie critic
standpoint, the only flaw I noticed being Penn's absolutely awful
coiffure and goatee, which mesmerized me during most of the movie,
causing enough distractions that I missed the entire second act.
Now that I think about it, we could have all done without the
agonizing vocal score that accompanied most of the dramatic scenes. It
sounded to me a few bushmen wailing in anguish at some sort of
throbbing pain, perhaps brought on by dental surgery. It caused pain
for me too. Music this bad should be a form of capital punishment in
The movie wouldn't have been watchable without the
outstanding performances from Penn and Sarandon, who I'm sure will
both be nominated along with Robbins at Oscar-time. I saw the movie
about a month after its original release and the theater was still
packed, which might have taken something away from my viewing
experience, because when Penn's life was flashing before his eyes at
the movie's climax, the person next to me's rank breath was flashing in
front of my nose. Despite that factor, the goatee and the painful score,
I still give this movie my wholehearted endorsement.
I personally don't see why DEAD MAN WALKING has been
given the R rating. Granted, the f-word is uttered once, but the PG-13-
rated THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT featured the word three times.
And there's hardly any violence. Perhaps it earned the R rating for its
inclusion of highly adult themes and overtones. Kids may not be able
to handle the lengthy death scene at the end of the movie, but DEAD
MAN WALKING has a strong message for all ages.
Copyright © 1996 Andrew Hicks