Death is breathing down your neck, and you’re playing your little man-on-the-make games.
There is a special urgency to Dead Man Walking, but early on, despite the concentration on appeals and lie-detector tests, we come to understand that the backbone of the story is not really whether or not death row inmate Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) will escape execution by lethal injection. The real tension of the story rests in whether or not Poncelet will admit to his culpability in the horrible crimes that landed him in Louisiana’s Angola prison: the rape and murder of a young couple he and an accomplice discovered necking in the woods. His spiritual advisor, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon)—who has never before counseled a death row prisoner—makes it her mission to lead Poncelet to redemption.
I find director Tim Robbins’ Academy Award-winning 1995 film (Sarandon took home the Best Actress trophy; Penn was also nominated, as was Robbins, as was Bruce Springsteen for the title tune) to be one of the most moving dramas ever made. Based on Prejean’s 1993 nonfiction book, the fact-based movie offers emotionally overwhelming depictions of grief, fear, hope, and love. I decided to return to the film shortly after the discussion I witnessed on our Ask Movie Irv post, What Movie Will You Never Watch Again?—inspired mainly by the answers from those who named pictures like The Deer Hunter and Schindler’s List as movies they would not see again because they were too painful to revisit.
This film wasn’t mentioned in those comments as I recall, but I associate it very much with that feeling. It had been a few years since I’d last subjected myself to a Repeat Viewing, but I remember vividly the first time I saw it in the theater. It was a harrowing experience. While the film is ruthless and bombards you with vivid accounts of sorrow and loss so strong as to be nearly unbearable, it also contains a life-affirming catharsis of equal dramatic power that defines the very idea of a “moment of grace.” It is no small feat for a film to make it possible for you to invest yourself in the spiritual rescue of one of cinema’s more hateful malefactors.
The genius of Dead Man Walking very much begins with that success, putting us squarely on the side of seeing a convicted rapist and murderer achieve victory—over himself—before he dies. You would want to see that if you are a supporter of the death penalty, especially if you are approaching it from an honest Christian perspective; likewise, you would want it if you happen to be a capital punishment opponent.
For the considerable reputation preceding (then) couple Robbins and Sarandon as liberal activists, their film about the death penalty turns out to be not just “fair and balanced,” but ultimately troubling to the soul of anyone who takes the issue seriously. Or, perhaps more accurately said, it should be troubling. Though it does not flinch from clearly articulating the journey Sister Helen Prejean takes towards becoming a vocal death penalty opponent, it does full justice to the outlook of those who find state-sponsored killing to be the only possible moral response to crimes like Matthew Poncelet’s.
We begin our journey seeing through Prejean’s eyes. She’s new to this type of involvement with the death penalty, and this effectively places us—should we be receptive to the gesture—in a neutral and later very conflicted place. The first signs she’ll be on her own come right away, as the prison chaplain upbraids her for not showing up wearing the conventional nun’s habit and suggesting she’s out of her depth; Prejean’s family, including her own mother, questions her judgment for associating herself with such a loathsome person and spending less time with the children of the impoverished community where she lives and works.
Then there are her dealings with the parents of the victims. In lesser “message” movies, these characters might be depicted as caricatures. Instead, we see extensive, respectful, and dignified scenes where Earl Delacroix (Raymond J. Barry), father of the murdered young man, and Clyde and Mary Beth Percy (R. Lee Ermey, Celia Weston), confront and criticize Prejean for her assistance to Poncelet, and bare their souls with heart-wrenching testimonials of grief.
The fascinating switch the film makes, at least to my eyes, is with our point of identification. Based as the movie is on Prejean’s book, we naturally bond to her as the film’s protagonist. But as the story moves forward, and Sister Helen steels herself against resistance from her coworkers, her family, the grieving families of the victims, the legal system, and of course, Poncelet himself, she becomes something more remote, and we begin to experience the story through the eyes of Matthew Poncelet. Not at all in the sense that “we are all murderers”—though the movie offers that possibility up towards the end—but in the sense that, at one time or another, we all seek redemption, and sometimes we are too weak to manage it ourselves, and so we require a teacher with the strength to lead us where we first wish not to go.
One of the film’s special achievements is the freshness and subtle visual drama that’s achieved with each sit-down between Prejean and Poncelet. It might seem at first like a no-win choice for the director and cinematographer: settle for stagnant, unchanging over-the-shoulder volleys, or indulge in melodramatic overreach, going for Dutch angles, unmotivated cutting and camera moves, or a reliance on hackneyed background effects (changing the weather, etc.).
Instead, Robbins and rightly-legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins match each interview that contains a change or progression in the relationship between Sister Helen and Poncelet with the addition of impressively understated visual cues.
As we might expect, despite the fact that Prejean has visited Poncelet in Angola at his request, the convict is guarded, defensive, and even hostile during their initial interview. Accordingly, Prejean at first only sees Poncelet just as we do—barely, through the harshly lit grill; in contrast, the reverse angle on Sister Helen—what he “sees”—is clearer, with the grill fuzzier and not as prominent. She is more accessible and open to him, as she is to us.
They discuss their pasts. Her coming “from money.” Poncelet lets loose with his racist tendencies right away, sneering at Prejean’s decision to live and work in the St. Thomas projects among black people. She turns the question back on him and his financial status, allowing him the opportunity to inform her—and us—that “there ain’t nobody with money on death row.” And then she breaks through to him:
You and I have something in common. We both live with the poor.
The change is subtle, but unmistakable: we move in tighter on Poncelet’s face, and the grill fades from our focus. The barrier between them has cleared, just a little.
As trust grows between them, and last-minute appeals are rejected, and the hour of Poncelet’s execution draws near—Poncelet is moved near the death chamber. A glass partition now separates them; Robbins and Deakins mark this deepening and more intimate stage of their relationship, showing us how Prejean’s spirit begins to live and work in Poncelet’s space, and vice versa.
During their climactic talk—when Poncelet breaks down—there is an interesting paradox at work. He and Sister Helen are separated now not by an impenetrable grill, and not by a sheet of glass, but by thick bars. While Poncelet talks about what happened on the fateful night Walter Delacroix and Hope Percy were murdered, he cries, and Prejean presses her face against the bars, also shattered but uplifted by the moment. She’d come through the cage if she could, but the film takes pains to show us that while they are closer than ever before, they remain distinctively apart as well.
The final walk drives this point home; the transformation Poncelet has experienced isn’t cheapened by turning him suddenly into a noble cliché, a cardboard convert. We see him still as a criminal, still the condemned, still on the razor’s edge of losing everything but for Prejean’s steady guidance and self-sacrifice. At so many turns, Dead Man Walking could slip into base agitprop or easy sentimentality. That it resists these traps so stubbornly is a mark of its daring and maturity.
The execution sequence is juxtaposed with the crimes for which Poncelet is being killed. And again, this choice is not only impressive artistically, but morally, as powerfully challenging as it is even-handed; you may read it as a rationalization, an explanation, or an accusation. Or, if you are thoughtful about it, you may read it for what it really is: all three things at once.
Think of the melodramatic death-row Hollywood production so viciously and hilariously parodied by director Robert Altman in The Player. Tim Robbins starred in that delicious satire released three years before Dead Man Walking—Sarandon had a cameo, if I recall correctly—and it might not be so much of a stretch to believe they had that film to thank for inspiring them to be so vigilant with the tone of this one. No doubt they felt a special responsibility already to tell this fact-based story written by a Catholic nun with respect and skill; but with this material, that special mawkishness Tinseltown blockbusters seem to so effortlessly dispense must have hovered, ever threatening.
Look at how Jesus changed the world, Sister Helen advises Matthew; read about how he angered the powerful by sharing his message of love for the unloved, the poor, and the sick. He was a rebel, and they killed him for it. Like me, Matthew grins. No, not at all like you, Sister Helen answers.
I keep thinking about the opening line of dialogue I used at the top this piece:
Death is breathing down your neck, and you’re playing your little man-on-the-make games.
Time is short. There is important work to do, and the cocky nonsense is getting in the way of you making that time meaningful.
I focus on that because I believe it to be what makes this film accessible to believers and nonbelievers alike; important to both those who support and oppose the death penalty, if they can only get past their initial biases and start reaching for understanding, the way both Sister Helen and Earl Delacroix clearly are as we watch them praying together at the end of the film, through a church window that allows us to see them—however indistinctly—clutching to hope, but in deep uncertainty.
The ability to preach that message—and to preach it to everyone, including someone as scorned and unloved as Matthew Poncelet—is what makes the character of Sister Helen Prejean who she is. The woman who opens herself up to the rain while everyone else runs for cover.