Released 1995. Director: Tim Robbins
QUITE SIMPLY, DEAD MAN WALKING IS A TRIUMPH in its quiet and serene approach to a heavyweight topic. The surprise comes in the non-judgemental viewpoint adopted by writer-director Tim Robbins, who, together with real-life partner Susan Sarandon, are known for their vocal political expressions.
Adapted from the autobiography of Sister Helen Prejean, the movie deals with the uncomfortable subject of capital punishment. Sister Prejean's stance is clear. She believes that death penalty is not ony an ineffective deterent for would-be murderers, but it has evolved into a personal vengeance from the people, particularly the victims' families, towards the deathrow convicts, as reflected in their participation in witnessing the execution.
However, we are left to decide where we stand as the movie does not try to resolve any debate. In delineating a wrenching case involving Sister Prejean and Matthew Poncelet, we are made witnesses of the struggles and dilemmas that are at the core of an eternal conflict.
Poncelet, with his accomplice, had been convicted for the rape and murder and two teenagers. In response to his request, Sister Prejean took up the responsibility of being Poncelet's spiritual advisor in his final weeks. Herein lay the moral complexities for the nun became the target of social and spiritual persecution for befriending the "devil", instead of consoling the grievous families whose son and daughter had been ruthlessly killed.
Susan Sarandon empowers her role with a humble dignity that's penetrating in its commiseration while Sean Penn's unrepentant portrayal is arrogance borne out of fear and weakness. In Robbins' even-handed direction, Dead Man Walking is a moving account that is profound and thought-provoking. The convict and the victims' parents were people with broken spirits while the volunteer only wanted to help bring a sense of deliverance. Redemption is blind, salvation is universal, and mercy is readily available to a cold-blooded murderer. There is no reprieve for a heinous deed, and it doesn't make any difference whether it's manslaughter or government-sanctioned execution, they are still killing people.
Putting aside the media sensationalization, activists' protests, a nun's heartfelt diligence, the families' need for retribution and the convict's vulnerability under a shield of dispassionate masking, the movie has ventured beyond questioning the validity of the death penalty. The final scene of Sister Prejean with one of the victims' father together in prayer seals their traumatic experience in a state of grace, a coda in perfect tranquility. In the characters' intense journey to free their souls of guilt, hatred and sorrow, this is about the power of forgiveness, and the miracle of healing.