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USA 1995
Directed by
Tim Robbins
122 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Dead Man Walking

A cursory glance at Tim Robbins follow-up to his 1992 directorial debut, Bob Roberts  might leave you with the impression that it is midday telemovie fodder but you’d be wrong. Dead Man Walking is a substantial exploration of the issues brought up by capital punishment.  It is, needless to say emotive subject matter but Robbins’ measured directorial hand and thoughtfully understated script never lets the film stray into the histrionic or didactic but keeps it always grounded in first-hand experience. Compelling performances by Susan Sarandon, who won a Best Actress Oscar, in the lead and Sean Penn (who was also Oscar-nominated but was passed over for Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas) as the embittered young man she is trying to save from execution by the State of Louisiana, keeps us fully involved in their shared journey.

Dead Man Walking is adapted from the memoirs the same name by Sister Helen Prejean (Sarandon) who a nun who works in a predominantly black inner-city neighborhood of New Orleans. One day she receives a letter from an inmate on Death Row of the Louisiana Stae Prison, Matthew Poncelet (Penn), who has been convicted, along with another man, of the rape and thrill-killing of two young lovers asking her to visit him. Although the mission chaplain (Scott Wilson) maintains that to do so would be ill-advised as she has no experience with such matters. Nevertheless she visits him. Poncelet, of course, protests innocence and she agrees to help him with his final appeal.

Penn is perfect for the part of the "dead man walking" (the name traditionally given to anyone awaiting execution): at times arrogant, manipulative, angry and imploring but unashamedly racist young man only too ready to blame the world for his misdeeds. Sister Prejean, who by default is dedicated to his spiritual redemption is an easy mark for him. Like Prejean we don’t know whether or not Poncelet is innocent for the length of the film. Robbins uses flashbacks to recreate the events as she gets to know a little bit more about Poncelet and his family with each visit.

Sarandon quietly captures the conflicts Sister Prejean feels in trying to maintain her faith in the essential goodness of man (and that it is a man she is dealing with is important) and reconcile herself to an act that seems to be incontrovertibly devoid of humanity and unequivocally warranting the State's judgement.

Whilst the principal dramatic axis is between Prejean and Poncelet her encounters with the murdered teenagers’ parents are also harrowing although once again, Robbins never stoops to melodrama.  As the film builds to its cathartic conclusion his restraint concentrates the emotions. The result is a powerful film that was, somewhat surprisingly, given its unvarnished treatment, a deserved critical and commercial success.

FYI: For another, more personal, less polemic consideration of capital punishment see Richard Brooks's In Cold Blood (1967).




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