The prison chaplin warns Sister Helen Prejean she should not expect the impending execution of a convicted killer to be like "a James Cagney movie." He has a point.
Cagney, you will recall, bristled with indignation as he walked to the electric chair in one of his most memorable performances. By contrast what makes Tim Robbins' DEAD MAN WALKING such a riveting, profoundly moving experience is its unflinching realism.
Hollywood has traditionally made heroes out of bad guys but that does not happen here. Matthew Poncelet, the Death Row inmate in this particular case, displays Cagney's defiantly unrepentent attitude at first. But he soon confesses that he's scared. So is his spritual advisor Sister Helen. A compassionate New Orleans nun she finds herself publically condemned for her decision to stick by Poncelet. But she persists in what becomes a fierce struggle to save his life and his soul. "I'm just trying to follow the example of Jesus who said that every person is worth more than their worst act," says Sister Helen in explaining her actions.
Using Sister Helen Prejean's 1993 autobiography as his inspiration Robbins more than confirms his talent as both a screenwriter and a director. That Robbins would even dare to make a movie about a spiritual journey such as this shows remarkable courage. To his credit Robbins presents a carefully balanced view of capital punishment, revealing the true complexity of this highly emotional issue.
Although Poncelet is facing the supposedly more humane method of death by lethal injection the actual procedure seems like nothing less than cold-blooded murder. The convicted murderer is gently protective of his mother and younger brothers and the viewer inevitably feels sympathy for his family in the poignant scene in which they say their goodbyes.
Even more heartbreaking are the shattered parents of the teenage lovers whom Poncelet continues to maintain he did not kill. The parents, not surprisingly, want revenge and Sister Helen is forced to deal with their understandable rage. There are also chilling flashbacks of the crime itself- a double murder of such casual brutality it reinforces the parents' demands for the death penalty.
Susan Sarandon's unadorned face accurately mirrors the inner strength and momentary doubts of Sister Helen. She gives a remarkably sensitive performance. Sean Penn transforms Poncelet into a compelling full-bodied character whose brash arrogance is slowly stripped away.
DEAD MAN WALKING demonstrates the power of love in a way that absolutely
unforgettable, making it easily one of the best movies of the year.
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