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Writer-director Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking is about a man awaiting execution, and the suffering and hope and reconciliation connected to his crime. The heroine, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), is a New Orleans nun who counsels Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), a death-row inmate at Angola State Prison.
Despite a pro forma claim of innocence--headmits he was present at the hideous double murder for which he was convicted, but says his accomplice, crazed by drugs, did the actual killing--Poncelet is clearly a vicious bastard; a defiant, tough-talking, ignorant white-trash thug. Sister Helen's visits to him and her efforts to get him legal help are simple attempts to put her faith into practice, but they earn her the wrath of the parents of the victims. They even get her snubbed by theblack kids in the mission where she works, because Poncelet harbors white-supremacist sentiments.
Robbins adapted the script from a like-titled book by the real-life Sister Helen; Poncelet is a fictitious composite of two inmates to whom she ministered. The narrative depicts how the condemned man grows to trust the sister enough to honestly look to her for counsel, not just for whatever slim advantage she may be able to give him in avoiding execution. It's also about how Sister Helen's decency, her openhearted wish to do spiritual good, transcends both the politics of capital punishment and her own inexperience in such matters.
I know, it sounds like a film to be avoided at any cost--either too maudlinly virtuous or too dreary and downbeat. But it's neither. It's gripping, emotionally engaging, occasionally funny and, ultimately, deeply touching drama, and it establishes Robbins as a director to be reckoned with.
The actor made his directorial debut a few years back with the political satire Bob Roberts, a mock documentary about a reactionary folk-singing congressman. It was fashionable for liberals to dismiss the film as improbable, an overly obvious left-wing agitprop (yet the following year, when Rush Limbaugh really began to hit it big, it seemed a lot less absurd). But however one regarded the content of Bob Roberts, the skill and wit with which it was made were undeniable.
But Bob Roberts was a joke film, slick and naughtily clever rather than indicative of any deep aesthetic sensibility. Nothing in that film prepares one for the emotional potency of Dead Man Walking.
Visually, Robbins and cinematographer Roger A. Deakins manage to avoid the cliche of both prison films and films set in the South--they create a realistic, melodrama-free feel without sacrificing atmosphere. The only lapse into triteness: Robbins pushes the nastiness of the mealy-mouthed little prison chaplain (Scott Wilson) too hard. Most important, however, Robbins has captured intense, wrenching performances from his leads.
Sarandon, once a pleasingly sexy comedienne-actress, has been suffering from the strain of Oscar envy the past few years. But even if she may have been initially attracted to this material only because it would allow her to use that phony-sugary Southern drawl from The Client again, there's no denying that her reserved work as Sister Helen is fine. She gets to cut loose only once--a frantic prayer in a ladies' room--and it's a knockout moment, because the emotional undercurrents in the performance have quietly prepared us for it throughout the film.
As for Penn, his numb, brooding misery as this trapped and desperate monster is astonishingly palpable. It's at the level of his best work, and it's a testament to how regrettable it would be if this marvelous actor kept to his rumored intention to give up appearing onscreen, in favor of his own, much more dubious efforts as a director.
The baleful quality of Penn's performance here is linked to Robbins' most impressive achievement with Dead Man Walking--its scrupulousness. Both as screenwriter and director, Robbins is careful to make Poncelet more scary and despicable rather than less. He piles on the evil traits, shoving our faces into the racism and remorselessness and ugly bravado, and never lets us forget for a second what Poncelet did. Throughout the film, to the very end, we see terrifying flashbacks of the crime.
Partly, this is shrewd, liberal ass-covering, a pre-emptive strike against the usual cries of "But what about the victim?" But Robbins is also challenging us, as an audience. He wants us, like Sister Helen, to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that this man is a monster, and to care about him anyway. Because Dead Man Walking appears to have been made from an anti-death-penalty angle, the irony is that imminent execution seems to give Penn's death-row beast a degree of human dignity he would never have found otherwise.
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