Dead Man Walking
1995, R, 122 min. Directed by Tim Robbins. Starring Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Celia Weston, R. Lee Ermey, Raymond J. Barry, Robert Prosky, Peter Sarsgaard, Missy Yager.
REVIEWED By Alison Macor, Fri., Feb. 2, 1996
One of the best things a film can do is make us reflect on our convictions and beliefs. Dead Man Walking, Tim Robbins' second effort as director and screenwriter since the mockumentary political satire Bob Roberts, powerfully forces this reflection through its compellingly ambiguous subject matter and superb performances by Sarandon and Penn. Dead Man Walking is based on the book of the same name written by Sister Helen Prejean, who is played by Sarandon in the film. As Sister Helen, Sarandon is a nun who acts as spiritual advisor to convicted death row inmate Matthew Poncelet (Penn). Sentenced to die by lethal injection for the murders of teenagers Walter Delacroix (Sarsgaard) and Hope Percy (Yager), Matthew writes to Sister Helen initially for help with his legal representation. As the reality of his situation comes more sharply into focus, Matthew relies on her for emotional support and spiritual guidance. Dedicated to a life of serving others, Sister Helen reaches out to Matthew first because of a sense of duty. The beauty of this film lies in its morally murky depths. Sister Helen finds her alliance with Matthew questioned from all sides: by her supportive but concerned family, by the people within the community where she works as a teacher, and most painfully by the families of the murdered teenagers. Sarandon's ability as an actress to plumb the depths of characters seems boundless. She presents Sister Helen as both a complex human being and a woman committed to her vocation. Penn's coiled, nuanced performance allows Matthew a sense of humanity beneath his hate and ignorance. Also noteworthy is Raymond J. Barry, who plays Walter's father Earl Delacroix as a shattered shell of a man struggling with his own demons. The use of flashbacks further fleshes out the main characters as well as the events for which Matthew is imprisoned. Providing haunting musical backlighting for the film's visuals are songs written expressly for Dead Man Walking by artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, and Johnny Cash. While only four tracks appear in the film, the other eight on the soundtrack create, through their words and music, an equally compelling parallel narrative to the film. The story of Sister Helen Prejean and Matthew Poncelet could be told in so many ways, and Robbins' direction and script are nearly flawlessly rich. There are no easy answers on death row, and Dead Man Walking makes this painfully, powerfully clear.