Dead Man Walking (1995)
Directed by: Tim Robbins | 122 minutes | drama, crime | Actors: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky, Raymond J. Barry, R. Lee Ermey, Celia Weston, Lois Smith, Scott Wilson, Roberta Maxwell, Margo Martindale, Barton Heyman, Steve Boles, Nesbitt Blaisdell, Ray Aranha, Larry Pine
Alongside Clint Eastwood, Sean Penn and Robert Redford, Tim Robbins is one of the few actors who is also making considerable progress as a director. In 1992, he made his directorial debut with the political satire ‘Bob Roberts’. That film was well received, but it wasn’t until his next film, ‘Dead Man Walking’, that Robbins really made a crushing impression. It is an intriguing drama about the complex friendship between a pious nun and a prisoner on death row. A mature, expertly made film that will especially appeal to the more serious film audience. The overwhelming performances of lead actors Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn shocked many; Sarandon won an Oscar and Penn, as well as Robbins himself, was nominated.
Sister Helen Prejean (Sarandon) is a devoted nun at the Saint Thomas shelter project for underprivileged black youth. One day she receives a letter from Matthew Poncelet (Penn), an inmate convicted of a double murder and rape in Angola Prison, who is awaiting his execution. Sister Helen decides to accede to Poncelet’s request and visit him in prison. The conversation is a little stiff at first, but Helen slowly becomes intrigued by the erratic, arrogant Matthew and decides to become his spiritual advisor, a position that until then had only been held by men. Slowly a close bond develops between the two, the courageous nun who, despite his misdeeds, nevertheless develops a kind of pity for Poncelet, and the criminal who does not want to accept his sentence and has finally found a listening ear. During the crucial week on which the film is focused, the pair undergo an emotional journey; both in their own way but complementary to each other. Fighting for Poncelet’s life and soul, Sister Helen must overcome her own fears. And for the hardy Poncelet, the journey is even more arduous; he must not only overcome his fear of death, he must also come to grips with his actions and ask for forgiveness.
‘Dead Man Walking’ is a film that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. The film is rock solid on every level; narrative structure, visual style, daring but with feeling and very well developed characters. The story is inspired by true events and people described by the real Helen Prejean in her 1993 book of the same name. Director Tim Robbins deliberately chose not to take a position on the death penalty in the film. Everyone knows that he has predominantly left-wing ideas and is against the death penalty, but ‘Dead Man Walking’ highlights all sides of the matter so that the viewer can draw his own conclusion. The killer is not romanticized. This is not a film about a wrongly convicted man. The crimes that Poncelet committed are undeniable. During the film, the viewer sees through flashbacks that Poncelet was indeed involved in the rape and murders and he does not deny it himself. He only claims that he is being punished too severely for not pulling the trigger. According to him, his friend did, an equally tough kid who got away with a life sentence simply because he had a better lawyer. Those flashbacks become more exciting and intense as the moment of execution approaches. As a viewer you want to know what really happened.
However, Sister Helen believes that Poncelet, no matter how bad his actions are, remains human. And you can’t just kill a person. It is God who decides that. Sarandon’s honest, honest, and sober portrayal finally earned her that Oscar she deserved for so long. Penn’s performance is also exceptionally good; you just have to dare to portray a character that is not good at all in such a way that the viewer still develops a bond with him. ‘Dead Man Walking’ is the type of film that is largely carried by the acting and you can leave that to Sarandon and Penn. In addition to the two rock-solid lead roles, ‘Dead Man Walking’ is supported by the nuances that Robbins introduces in a discussion that is generally approached very short-sighted. It is certain that Poncelet is guilty of a heinous crime, but does that mean we are suddenly no longer allowed to see him as a human being? Enough food for thought!