Dead Man Walking is that most rare of creatures in the realm of Hollywood, a ‘message’ picture with both heart and brains. It does not pander to one side of the death penalty issue, nor does it load itself down with soap-opera melodrama. It is a serious minded look at one of the most contentious moral dilemmas in modern history. It does have an agenda, but then, any message movie worth its salt has a point of view.Coming, as it does, from two of the most outspoken advocates of human rights and social justice in Hollywood; perhaps I could be forgiven for presuming to know which way the movie was going to jump. I know and respect the work of both Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, and I felt like I knew where they were going. It actually made me reluctant to see it for quite some time; I just really didn’t like being preached to. So I avoided the movie, smugly sure that I already knew the argument that Tim Robbins was going to make.
Here we have the story of Sister Helen Prejan, a nun in modern day Louisiana. One day she receives a letter from Mathew Poncelet a convicted killer waiting for his time to run out on Death Row in the local penitentiary. Poncelet is in jail for his part in the brutal rape and murder of a pair of young lovers. He protests his innocence to Sister Prejean, and against her better judgment, she agrees to be his spiritual adviser.
I hesitate to tell you any more about the movie plot-wise, because revelations (both external and internal) are at the heart of these performances. The Drama here rests on details, and things that may seem unimportant in reading a review may affect how you see the movie.
Everything here is done with an eye towards moving the story forward. The performances are honest this is particularly impressive in the case of the families of the two victims. Serving as a sort of microcosm of possible audience reaction to the material, they carry a lot of weight and the four of them come off wonderfully.
There is also a considerable amount of graphic violence, if that sort of thing troubles you a great deal. It comes in the form of flashbacks that we see of the crime that landed Poncelet on death row in the first place. They are just as horrible and hard to stomach as they should be. Here again though, you can take small comfort from the fact that there is a graceful hand at the helm. Robbins’ camera never leers, or makes use of flashy Hollywood violence shorthand.All in all, this movie made me sad, not just because of the violence in the world. I was also sad because I thought I had a pretty good handle on where I was on this issue, and having seen this movie I was forced to think about the ethics of the Death Penalty. Dead Man Walking is a harrowing, gripping and ultimately a thoughtful movie.