Dead Man Walking

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.

  • Gary Arthur

    I think Sean Penn is one of the most over rated, mediochre actors in hollywood. One big phony.

    • Jake

      Gary Arthur is right on.He will be remembered for his best performance as Hugo Chavez side kick.

  • wayne

    His failed, leftist political ambitions always to over-shadow whatever acting chops he may, or may not have! Let that be a lesson to you, young man, Ok?

    • George D. Allen

      Wayne, it does me such good to be referred to as a young man (!) that I feel compelled to respond, even though we’re a little early in the comments stream for this one:

      Actually, the lesson I’m afraid I take from the above is that I should probably stop being disappointed every time members of this readership–who, by the way, are forever making a point about wanting to separate matters of politics from their appreciation of great movies–never miss a chance to dismiss the entirety of a film’s artistry out of hand because one or more members of the cast or production team fail to meet their rather limited definition of being a rock-ribbed patriot.

  • wayne

    Thanks George for bringing me back to earth, and I do mean that seriously, Ok? Because, and I know you caught a conservative drift to my commentary (and hopefully no hypocrisy) even if no one else does!

    In the touche or et tu’ Brute (possible right vs. left?) category of response: I agree with you that I might not be as patriotic as some, if by that, you mean that am not a classical liberal, like Mr. Penn. But, when he rushes to support Hugo Chavez against Ozzie Guillen, who is actually Venezuelan (unllike Mr. Penn) when discussing the oppression of that countrys system of governance…then I will have to side with Mr. Guillen! Although, I confess to have forgotten the specifics of the issue they were debating at the time last year…I suspect it had something to do with the relative lack of freedom in Venezuela when compared to the rights under a democratic Republic that we have available here in the USA.

    Anyway, I do respect your opinion on the above movie role Sean was performing to the best of his ability…my remarks were in the main, that his acting abilities have been superseded by his persona…and, much like what happened to John Wayne when he entered the foray of the realities of Vietnam era politics in the ’70’s…it tends to overwhelm whatever youre doing on the screen (ala Matt Damon and Barbra Streisand on the left).

    The Duke, to his credit, never lost his reputation for integrity in cinema…lets hope Sean Penn, can say the same down the road some and my reference to young man was more directed at him than you, George. I respect his and your. talent at what you do…it was a shot at a distinction with a difference: his forays into politics have colored our views of his craft. Your good review of the picture was based on the merits of the art…and when the craftsman ventures outside the realm of their competence, then all bets are off…thanks for the dialogue 🙂

    • George D. Allen

      Wayne, I’m obliged for the kind words. It’s all good, as the kids say; I’m all for the spirited back-n-forth 🙂

      Hopefully I was clear that my critique is directed less at you personally than the specific situation I point out. The disappointment for me is when people feel they must deprive themselves of valuable experiences with well-made movies for (what I believe to be) no good reason.

      We’re all entitled to each and every one of our reasons, of course—there are some movies I may choose not to watch, at least for now, for entirely personal reasons of my own; I wouldn’t dream, for example, of criticizing or looking down on someone who wouldn’t want to watch “Dead Man Walking” because they have something in their own personal history that might make the watching of the film too hurtful to bear; how silly would that be?—but these smug dismissals of films (or, I’ll admit it here, the appreciations of them that are aimed at providing insight) for reasons totally unrelated to the movies themselves is a persistent disappointment to me.

      Now, what really gets my dander up, whenever it presents itself, is the oft-accompanying accusation that writing about “these” films, or “those” actors, or “that” director–all the members of that informal blacklist–is itself somehow demonstrating a lack of knowledge, class, appreciation, call it whatever you want, of “the movies.” Because what that complaint actually reveals is the complainer’s own elitism and inability or unwillingness to contain their own biases well enough to approach the exploration of movies, or the critique of same, by talking about the movies instead of turning their noses up at them based solely on their pet issues.

      On the other hand, I’m all for using movies from the past to explore relevant events today, which is an entirely different exercise.

      We all draw the line somewhere, I suppose. I just paid good money to see a (terrific) Roman Polanski movie; Mel Gibson’s drunken rants aren’t going to stop me from digging the hell out of “The Road Warrior” again and again or seeing any of his future films that might be as interesting as those he’s made before. I bought and read Leni Riefenstahl’s autobiography years ago; I have “The Birth of a Nation” in my library. Sean Penn’s “Hugo Chavez problem” I think has exactly nothing to do with what makes “Dead Man Walking” a film of great interest and uncommon power, so I have little motivation to pore over it inasmuch as it doesn’t relate to the film.

      (To me, anyway, otherwise I’d have spent valuable space on it. I also decided to leave out my own opinion about the death penalty, because it just wasn’t what I wanted to talk about. I was much more interested in Robbins’/Deakins’ staging of the conversations, the cinematography involved, and the amazing way Prejean’s character is defined in the opening seconds of the film with that moment in the rain I reference at the end of the piece)

      Whew, this is half-again the number of words in the column. Oh, well, it’s the end of the day anyway. What’s that saying? Seacrest out!

  • wayne

    Well put George and I, for one at least, do appreciate you taking your valuable time to reply as you seem to do so much with me and am not boasting when I say its hoped for that it had something to do with the contents of my remarks, just as mine here are meant to give ample weight to your intended viewpoint! With that in my mind, I did go ahead and re-read your article and was surprised to find the high degree of objectivity present and do admit its hard to leave ones own subjective viewpoint out of their commentaries, in yours or any of the other opinion-related fields; most especially, politics, of course..;)

    I used to work as a proof-reader for a trade magazine and love to editorialize myself, as you can see, a good bit! As a claims adjuster now, I can just endulge my fancy on your websites wonderful blogs and the main thing is to keep the lively banter going, but with gentleness and respect so as indulge a paraphrase @ 1 Peter 3:15.

    Btw, lest we forget the movie at issue…it was a modern day updating of the ever eternal struggle to save one’s eternal soul and what could be more important, whatever side of the fence were on?

  • Gordon Jackson

    I think I am due to re-view “Dead Man Walking.”

  • aldanoli

    I thank Mr. Allen for his thoughtful and illuminating discussion of “Dead Man Walking,” which — though I agree it is a difficult movie to watch, it’s worth the effort in the haunting impressions it leaves long after one views it. And on a side note, I did find it a little depressing that some of the first people who chose to post here decided to use the forum for political rants that largely if not completely overlooked Mr. Allen’s insights about the film . . . I was glad to see that his calm response brought at least one of those folks back into the discussion of the *film,* leaving the political issues for another day. (Not that it’s a wholly invalid question — someone *could* have written an interesting essay about the public perception of the political views of celebrities, who often do use their visibility to advance causes they believe in, whether it’s John Wayne and Mel Gibson on one side of the fence or Sean Penn and George Clooney on another . . . it just struck me that after reading Mr. Allen’s fascinating dissection of “Dead Man Walking,” that wasn’t the first thing I thought needed to be said in response. There will also come a day, of course, when long after Mr. Penn, Mr. Chavez, and whatever political issues of today are long gone, we will still have this film, and folks 50 or 100 years from now will be able to judge it only by what they see on the screen, without the background noise of long-forgotten issues of the day.)

    Anyway ~ sorry for getting a little distracted myself. But a couple of points about the film. First, I most appreciated Mr. Allen’s taking the time to point out the subtle use of different perspectives on Sr. Helen and Poncelet as the film progresses, with the alteration of the different physical barriers that separate them, as a way of reinforcing what the script and the plot already were trying to get across. It reminds us that film is, first and foremost, a *visual* medium, with tools at its disposal that the printed word does not have, but that are easy to overlook the first (or even the fourth or fifth) time one views a movie. It’s easier to recognize them in some films than in others (“Citizen Kane,” for example, where practically every shot is an experiment along those lines) — but “Dead Man Walking” was a film in which the story itself was so harrowing that it’s easy to concentrate just on the story and to miss that Tim Robbins and Roger Deakins were able to use the language of the camera to underscore, or offer a silent commentary, on what the story was also saying.

    Second, as I read his essay, I was also reminded of a radio interview in which the real-life Sr. Helen described her experience in the case that led to her book . . . this being Louisiana, everyone involved (the families of the victims, Poncelet and his family, and the prison officials with whom she dealt) were all Catholic, giving her, in an odd way, a bond with all of them, even though her actions managed to infuriate some of them, as she seemed to be “wasting” her time counseling a rapist and murderer, while apparently failing to offer that same succor to the people with whom she normally worked — or the families of Poncelet’s victims. It’s a reminder that even doing what is right is not always an easy or undivided path, and that Sr. Helen paid a personal and emotional price for going through this process that had nothing to do with Poncelet’s impending death.

    A line that she used in her interview has long resonated with me — she said that each of us is better than the worst thing that we have ever done. I turned that phrase over in my mind for a long time after hearing her interview . . . she seemed to be saying that even though Poncelet had committed this horrendous crime — denying and ultimately destroying the humanity of his victims — in the end, Poncelet was himself still a person, too, and that that was not negated by his crime, even though the state was determined to wipe out his humanity in response to the crime. Ultimately, I think what she (and “Dead Man Walking”) has to say is that if we can look at a man like Poncelet and see him as more than just that horrific act he committed — as, no doubt, Jesus would have seen him, too — then there is an act of redemption in that not just for Poncelet but for ourselves. Each of us will, at some point, be condemned for some failing in our lives, and at those moments the tendency is to assert that we, too, are more than that “worst act” for which we may find ourselves condemned . . . but that that is true even for the Matthew Poncelets among us.

    • George D. Allen

      Many thanks for your own insights (& especially the commentary about the interview w/Prejean). 🙂

      I also liked your comparison & contrast with a movie like “Kane,” and how easy it is to take for granted the choices those behind the camera are making when it’s not always the point of the film to showcase them out front (which of course is never bad in and of itself, as long as it works). Even after I’d posted the piece, I looked at those two opposing closeups of Poncelet’s confession scene, and realized I’d failed to point out that yes, they chose to shoot the bars differently, too–you’ll note that from Sr. Helen’s POV, the bars are fuzzier, as if you could slip right through them; but from Poncelet’s POV, the bars are bright and solid.

      These are all (at least to me) fascinating creative decisions being made, and all the more wonderful because they can be quite powerful and illuminating when found, but they’re not overly intellectual or superfluous or “cute” gestures, as in so many films that urge you to look at them over and over again to find “hidden” meanings.