Friday December 29, 1995
It is happenstance as much as anything else that gets Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) to death row. On impulse she answers a letter from an inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and now she's in the chaplin's office, listening politely as he tells her that condemned prisoners are without exception manipulative and barbaric. "Do you know," he asks her evenly, "what you're getting into?"
She doesn't, of course, but more to the point, neither do we. For "Dead Man Walking," written and directed by Tim Robbins from Sister Prejean's highly praised book on her death row experiences, is neither easy nor conventional. Unusual in both its subject matter and its approach, this film guides us on a pair of intertwined paths American movies rarely venture down.
Taking the death penalty as its subject, "Dead Man Walking" is first of all an example of the cinema of ideas. Robbins, an accomplished actor whose directorial debut was the political satire "Bob Roberts," is a careful and forceful filmmaker whose movies have something to say. His thrust here is not so much polemical as exploratory: He wants to examine capital punishment with as much dispassion as possible, trusting the power of events to engage us without the aid of over-dramatization.
But because Sister Prejean is its protagonist, "Dead Man Walking" has another aim as well. Her involvement with convicted murderer Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) has to do with saving his soul, with allowing him to take responsibility for his acts so he can die in peace and grace. So, with something like the austere gravity more usually associated with the films of French director Robert Bresson, "Dead Man" takes us along on the reluctant, difficult, essentially spiritual journey these two unlikely people make together.
For this kind of straight-ahead movie to work, the acting must be strong without even a breath of theatricality, and in Penn and Sarandon, "Dead Man Walking" has performers capable of making that happen.
Though it's hardly a stretch for Penn to be playing a bad boy, he brings a renewed conviction and a skewered intensity to this part that makes his performance fresh and overpowering. Everything about Poncelet is unsettling and slightly off-center, from his helmet-like lacquered pompadour to the disturbing restraint with which he talks. Cold around the eyes and as mesmerizing as a snake, Poncelet is disturbing as only hard-core evil can be, yet Penn also has the ability to make the character's emotional turmoil believable.
Since complete goodness is harder to make convincing on screen than unblinking evil, Sarandon's part is by definition more challenging. Though her portrayal finally breaks through and gives the film much of its power, it is not as clear-cut or straightforward a success as Penn's work is.
Easy and secure in her belief, with a resilient smile and an unflappable temperament, Sister Helen works at Hope House in a particularly hopeless corner of New Orleans. When she answers Poncelet's letter, goes to meet him on death row and helps interest attorney Hilton Barber (Robert Prosky) in his appeal, she sees her aim of saving a human life as simple and self-evident.
It doesn't remain that way for long. Though Poncelet (a composite of two real-life inmates) maintains his innocence, Sister Helen is disturbed by the horrific nature of the crime he and an associate were convicted of, the brutal murder of a pair of teenage lovers. She is disgusted by his unalloyed prejudice, and finds that as her involvement with his case gets into the papers, her friends and family are increasingly unsympathetic to what she's doing. "A full heart," her mother warns her, "shouldn't follow an empty head."
In fact, "Dead Man Walking" is weakest in not expanding on Sister Helen's reasons for persevering with a case that is causing difficulty with almost everyone close to her. She simply shrugs, smiles and soldiers on, which, combined with Robbins' occasional coldness as a director, makes her seem not as believably human as she needs to be.
One thing that is explored in provocative detail is the strongest jolt Sister Helen receives, the hostility of the murder victims' parents. Their agony at a wound that can never be healed, their challenge to the sister to comfort them as well as the condemned man, are compassionately explored, and their emotional stories are likely to tear up audiences as much as they do Sister Helen.
But though one of the parents tells the sister she must choose sides, she can't have it both ways, Sister Helen disagrees. She is determined to minister to the parents if they'll let her, but also to be Poncelet's designated spiritual advisor, to be with him in the final week before his execution, trying to break through his reserve and save him. While "Dead Man's" conclusion has its doubtful moments, by the time it arrives Sarandon has demonstrated the strength and resolve of Sister Prejean, the sheer forcefulness of her will to goodness.
Though it is not hard to guess which side Robbins is on in all of this, "Dead Man Walking" is not an anti-capital punishment pamphlet. By giving a full hearing to several aspects of this complex issue, the director wants audiences to do what the sister does, to see both Poncelet and the parents as people first and symbols second, to find the human places in this acrimonious and often impersonal debate.
Dead Man Walking, 1995. R, a depiction of rape and murder. PolyGram Filmed Entertainment presents a Working Title Films/Havoc production, released by Gramercy Pictures. Director Tim Robbins. Producers Jon Kilik, Tim Robbins, Rudd Simmons. Executive producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. Screenplay Tim Robbins, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J. Cinematographer Roger A. Deakins. Editor Lisa Zeno Churgin. Costumes Renee Ehrich Kalfus. Music David Robbins. Production design Richard Hoover. Art director Tom Warren. Set decorator Laurie Friedman. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes. Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean. Sean Penn as Matthew Poncelet. Robert Prosky as Hilton Barber. Raymond J. Barry as Earl Delacroix. R. Lee Ermey as Clyde Percy. Celia Weston as Mary Beth Percy. Lois Smith as Helen's mother.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times