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Dead Man Walking

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Dead Man Walking

Starring: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn
Director: Tim Robbins
Rated: R
RunTime: 122 Minutes
Release Date: December 1995
Genre: Drama

Review by Walter Frith
No Rating Supplied

WARNING: Spoilers are contained to make a point in reviewing this film.

It's December 9, 1998. A Canadian man named Stan Faulder is awaiting execution by lethal injection tomorrow in the state of Texas, convicted of a 1975 murder, and the circumstances leading up to the man's date with death and the facts of his involvement in the crime remain somewhat hazy. Whether or not Faulder will die at the hands of capital punishment remains uncertain. As a Canadian citizen myself, I support the use of capital punishment but only in absolutely certain cases where the killers confess or where the criminal implicated is definitely identified and his or her case is not circumstantial. In any event, their death means they will never kill again and the tax dollars needed to support them in prison for thirty, forty or even fifty years could be better spent on education, medicare, old age pensions and other worthy social causes.

In 1995, Tim Robbins directed an absolutely brilliant film that was fair, unbiased and left you wrestling with the moral dilemma of people playing God (assuming you believe in God) in a world God gave us to run as best we can. Does that mean killing killers? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The film was 'Dead Man Walking' and it, along with 'The American President' and 'Leaving Las Vegas' should have replaced the silly choices of 'Babe', 'Il Postino (The Postman)' and 'Sense and Sensibility' as some of the Best Picture Oscar nominees that year.

The film did win an Oscar for Susan Sarandon's heartfelt performance as a nun who counsels a death row inmate (Sean Penn), sentenced to die in Louisiana by lethal injection for the torture and murder of two teenagers. Fingers were pointed at Penn and another man but only Penn got the death sentence while the other man got life.

Sean Penn is also extraordinary in this film. He was Oscar nominated as Best Actor and a strong case could have been made for him winning over Nicolas Cage who scooped up the prize for 'Leaving Las Vegas'. Based on a novel by Sister Helen Prejean (whom Sarandon portrays in the film), 'Dead Man Walking' took the courageous step of examining the grief of the victim's families. Sarandon visits with the family of the murdered girl and they believe that she is on their side in comforting them through the pain of dealing with their child's death but when they find out that she is counseling the death row inmate, they are enraged and order her to leave their house. The other murder victim's father is more understanding but is still filled with hate and also objects to Sarandon comforting the man about to die. Sarandon also visits the condemned man's family to get their response to the events about to take place.

Tim Robbins made this film coming off an extraordinary performance in the classic prison drama 'The Shawshank Redemption' in 1994 and turning to another prison film within a year by examining a different subject from a different point of view as a director rather than as an actor shows Robbins' range on both fronts.

Elements of the convict's trial are exposed as unfair since he had a tax lawyer defend him in court. I have a lot of respect for Tim Robbins as a director for showing both sides of the debate and letting the audience make up their own minds. He cross cuts footage of the execution at the end of the film with footage of the crimes and uses the ghosts of the murder victims to appear in the witness box at the time of execution. Balanced with the expressions on the faces of the murder victims families upon seeing a man executed and all done with a hauntingly soulless musical interlude, 'Dead Man Walking' spells out one of society's controversial topics that deserves as much consideration and spotlight as any other important social issue.

Copyright 1999 Walter Frith

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