DEAD MAN WALKING is a carefully crafted filmed by writer,
director, and co-producer Tim Robbins. It tells the story of a
convicted murder and rapist named Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn). He has
been on death row in Louisiana for six years and is soon to be executed
after numerous appeals to the state and federal courts. DEAD MAN
WALKING is purported to be an evenhanded view of both sides of the
capital punishment issue. More on how successful the film is at that
later in the review. This show is much more than a message movie, and
it contains some incredible performances. Whether your feelings on the
death penalty are strong one way or another or even if you simply don't
have an opinion, this film will move you and challenge you to think
about your beliefs and values.
The movie is based on an autobiography by Sister Helen Prejean.
The characters in the story are not real, but rather are fictional
compositions of similar ones she has known. Susan Sarandon plays
Sister Helen and getting to know her through Saradon's Academy Award
quality performance makes your time at the movies special. The many
other marvelous aspects to the film enhance your movie going experience
Matthew Poncelet committed his crime in 1988. He and his buddy
found two teenagers kissing in a car in a wooded lovers lane area.
They pulled them out of the car, raped the girl, viciously stabbed them
and then shot them in the back of the head. As a teenager, I once had
a stranger try to come into my car in the same circumstance and in a
similar wooded place. We got away, but even today I am frighten when I
think about what could have happened. Certainly for me, this movie
rang true, and it was easy to identify with the victims. As a parent,
it was also even to identify with the parents in the movie. Chilling
Sister Helen works in a poor black ghetto, but gets a letter from
Poncelet in prison and goes to visit him. She is scared and uneasy in
her first visit ever to a prison, but agrees to help him file new
appeals and find him a new lawyer. In this and every scene Sarandon is
nothing short of incredible. She manages to be reserved, but show her
emotion with her expressions and her soft but effective speech. Other
actresses and other directors would have overdone the nun's role. Here
her outward uneasiness and trepidation is conquered by her inner
courage. A tour de force acting performance by Sarandon.
Penn is terrific as a prisoner. Watch especially how downcast his
eyes are and how fidgety he is. The audience is quickly convinced that
this guy did it. Nevertheless, he claims he only watched while his
buddy did the rape and the murders. His buddy, of course, claims just
the opposite is true. On one level the movie is about whether Poncelet
will get his execution postponed and whether he really did it or not.
Most of the film however reminded me more of MY DINNER WITH ANDRE than
any other film. Sister Helen and Poncelet have long conversations
about everything from racism to Jesus and salvation.
The director sets a slow and deliberate pace where there are a lot
of natural pauses in the conversations. In a mediocre movie, this
technique is the kiss of death as it rapidly gives rise to boredom, but
here it allows the audience to contemplate the meaning of the excellent
script. The sound effects editing of the movie is unusual. There is
little ambient noise in most scenes causing the dialog to be
accentuated much as a room with only a single picture focuses the
viewer attention on it.
The movie shows the nuns as real people who are not afraid to
laugh, and the script has several quite natural jokes. When Sister
Helen gets stopped by a state trooper (Clancy Brown from THE SHAWSHANK
REDEMPTION), he says, "You're a nun. I gave a ticket to an IRS agent
one time. I got audited the next year. I don't think I'll give you a
The actors and actresses playing the victim's families (Raymond J.
Barry, R. Lee Ermey, etc.) are some of the strongest minor characters I
have seen in a long time. Their discussions of why there should be a
death penalty contribute to the picture's attempt at evenhandedness.
The Academy Award quality editing (Lisa Zeno Churgin) provides another
pro-death penalty argument. It is hard to watch the flashbacks of the
rape and the murders interlaced with photos of the victims growing up
and not want Poncelet to die. On the other hand, I still think the
script and most of the movie is so sympathetic to the killer that is a
flawed attempt at evenhandedness. The audience ends up wanting the
killer to live. There was major weeping in my audience.
I did not find Robert Prosky's role as lawyer Hilton Barber very
effective. He gave his usual performance unchanged from many other
movies he has been in. Clearly the weakest character of the lot.
The script is brilliant. There so many examples that is hard to
know where to start. When Sister Helen first meets Poncelet and he
comes on to her, she tells him, "Look at you. Death is looking down
your neck, and you're playing your little male come on games." The
mother of the girl victim speaking about the last time she saw her
daughter says, "You don't know when a child leaves, it will be the last
time you'll ever see her again. If I'd known this, I'd of told her I
loved her." When Sister Helen asks Poncelet if he isn't sorry for the
parents of the victim, he answers that "It's hard to have much sympathy
with the parents when they are trying to kill me". Toward the end he
tells Sister Helen, "It's quiet. Only three days left. Plenty of time
to read my Bible and look for a loophole." When the male victim's
father asks Sister Helen how she has the faith to do what she does, she
replies, "It's not faith, its work."
The cinematography (Roger Deakins) is slow, deliberate, and
intimate just like the script. Watch especially how the camera moves
during the naturally lit scenes in the victims' houses. The sets
(Richard Hoover) and the costumes (Renee Ehrlich Kalfus) are extremely
accurate in recreating poor Southern whites and their houses. Penn's
attire and make-up help create his character before he even speaks.
There is little use of music (David Robbins), but what there is has a
wonderful reverential feel.
I had two guys sitting behind me talking some. When I realized
they looked like the death row inmates in the movie, I decided I would
let them talk without interruption.
I do have some criticisms of the movie. First, it is too
sympathetic to the killer. Watch how they make him into Christ at the
end. Second, the black ghetto was made to seem like too much fun. It
was full of happy people on the streets and has churches filled to
overflowing with people singing and dancing. I have been to ghettos
before, and Robbin's vision is not realistic. Third, the lawyer claims
that Poncelet's chances are a thousand to one. Given the large ratio
of people on death row to those actually ever executed, the odds are
that most convicted killers will never be executed even if there are
initially sentenced to die. Finally, having Poncelet be such a racist
that he gets on TV while he is trying to get the governor to pardon him
and proclaim that, "Hitler was on the right track that the Aryan was
the master race," is a bit much hard to belief. I think in those
circumstances, he would have held his tongue.
DEAD MAN WALKING runs an absorbing but slow and deliberately paced
2:02. I would not have changed the pacing at all, and I hope to see
the editor win lots of awards. It is rated R for rape and murder. It
is a realistic show, but should be fine for teenagers interested in
serious material. I strongly recommend this film to you, and I give
it *** 1/2.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes