Dead Man Walking offers many surprises, but none more astonishing than the mere fact that writer-director Tim Robbins -- a man who has not been shy about stating his liberal political ideas in interviews -- could avoid preaching, and present such a balanced take on a subject as emotionally charged as the death penalty. It doesn't start out looking that way, though. During its first half hour, the film follows a fairly straightforward anti-death penalty track: Introduce the condemned man; mention his crime without dwelling on its gruesomeness; raise the possibility that someone else did the actual killing. Then humanize the death-row inmate. Hire a gifted actor to expose the vulnerability beneath the hardened faaade. Make your guy look good by comparison, introducing his uglier and far more reprehensible partner in crime who received less severe punishment because he could afford a better lawyer. Highlight the blood lust of those who want to see the prisoner fry. Pepper the dialogue with lines such as "Ain't nobody with money on death row" (a sentiment whose veracity the O.J. Simpson verdict underlined). The filmmaker's strategy parallels that of the lawyer representing the convict in a last-ditch clemency hearing: "Make them see a human being. It's easy to kill a monster. It's hard to kill a human being."
Robbins loosely bases his fictional film on the real-life memoirs of a nun, Sister Helen Prejean, who counseled and comforted both death-row inmates and the families of their murder victims in New Orleans in the Eighties. Wide-eyed Susan Sarandon, plucky as ever, plays Sister Helen, and serves as the audience's on-screen surrogate. It's a difficult assignment, but Sarandon makes it look easy, portraying the sister not as some righteous nun who thinks she's got everything figured out, but rather as a woman who makes a lot of mistakes.
Sister Helen comes from a cushy upper-middle-class household; it's fair to say she's led a sheltered life. Her regular gig teaching underprivileged kids seems pretty challenging until the day she agrees to serve as spiritual adviser to Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), a lonely, desperate convicted killer she met through the mail. The guileless nun naively believes she's up to the task, despite the fact that her previous experience with hardened criminals consists of having sung in the choir at a home for juvenile delinquents. But she begins to have second thoughts once she meets the convict in person. Brash, leering, pompadoured, and arrogant, Poncelet is one difficult-to-like fellow. And he's a racist to boot. But not to worry; nobody but nobody does the vulnerable/defiant, tough on the outside/tender on the inside, white-trash antihero shtick better than Sean Penn. His edgy intensity is the perfect foil for Sarandon's heartfelt sincerity. It's a sublime treat just to watch these two remarkable actors play off each other.
But you can be forgiven for thinking you know what's in store -- proselytizing against the horrors of capital punishment by romanticizing the convicted murderer, and maybe even a subplot in which the sexually repressed nun falls in love with the soulful convict who conceivably could be innocent.
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The last thing that those of us familiar with Tim Robbins's work (or his politics) expect is detachment and impartiality. This is the same Tim Robbins who starred in the insipid The Shawshank Redemption, which embraced every prison-movie cliche of the past 50 years (sadistic guards, hypocritical warden, the sheer inhumanity of it all). It's also the same Tim Robbins who wore his leftist views on his sleeve in the scathingly funny satire Bob Roberts. (Robbins directed and starred in that potent but one-sided exercise in conservative bashing.) Times change, filmmakers change. This time out Robbins reins in his partisan proclivities, and his film is doubly affecting for it. He forcefully and compassionately illustrates all sides of the issue.
After generating sympathy for Poncelet's plight, Robbins does an about-face and shows us the steely-eyed prisoner's dark side -- bigotry, misogyny, arrogance, ignorance, hatred, and probably complicity in the crime for which he has been sentenced to die. Then he introduces Sister Helen -- and us -- to the parents of the teenage couple Poncelet stands convicted of brutally murdering. Robbins also discloses, via a combination of nightmarish flashbacks and the parents' anguished descriptions, the horrifying details of the crime. Just as Sister Helen finds herself torn between Poncelet's desperation and the pain of the victims' families, so too does the audience find itself rent with conflicting emotions.
Instead of encouraging you to weep over some over-romanticized, misunderstood convict going to his death, Dead Man Walking elicits tears when the murdered girl's mother regrets that her last words to her daughter were about a subject as inconsequential as the hem of the teen's skirt; and when the mother breaks down as she reveals that she thought her daughter's beloved class pin was lost -- until the coroner found it embedded deep inside one of the girl's multiple stab wounds. Who can argue with the girl's father when he calls Poncelet an animal and then retracts the statement because, as he puts it, "animals don't rape and kill their own kind." And who couldn't relate to his fleeting thoughts of grabbing the sidearm of one of the deputies at Poncelet's trial and plugging the smirking little reprobate right then and there.
Still, Dead Man Walking never edges into the pro-capital punishment camp. Robbins and Penn team up to portray Poncelet as a selfish, callous man who is almost -- almost -- beyond redemption. But as the powers that be deny Poncelet's last-ditch appeals for a stay of execution and the moment of truth approaches, the mask of bravado falls, and a scared young man who just wants to salvage a little dignity emerges. You see the machinery of death up close. You meet the guy whose job it is to strap down one of the prisoner's legs (there's an official four-person strap-down team, with each member responsible for one specific limb). You hear a vivid description of the execution process and a graphic explanation of the damage lethal injections do to a dying man's internal organs. You take that long walk through the death house as the iron gates clang shut behind you with the finality of death itself. And you realize that Dead Man Walking opposes all killing, whether by drug-addled murderers or state-sponsored executioners. Sister Helen eventually finds the terrified human beneath Matthew Poncelet's insolent exterior. At that point she struggles to reconcile that reality with the inhuman savagery of his crime, while simultaneously groping for a way to comfort the victims' families, who seek retribution for their unbearable grief. It's a tough balancing act. You've got to hand it to both Sister Helen and Tim Robbins for pulling it off.