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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 27.03%
Average: 0%
Pretty Bad: 8.11%
Total Crap: 5.41%

2 reviews, 25 user ratings

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Dead Man Walking (1995)
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Sincere drama, powerfully acted."
4 stars

The spirit of the '70s -- a decade when gutsy filmmaking still seemed possible in Hollywood -- lives on in Sean Penn.

Penn directed 1995's The Crossing Guard, a searching and intimate drama harking back to John Cassavetes' work, and his infrequent but vivid recent performances -- in Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way and now Dead Man Walking -- make us yearn for the days when Pacino and De Niro were young and hungry. Penn is still hungry. In Dead Man Walking, Penn takes a page from Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter and barely moves a muscle. He knows we'll watch him, and he's right.

Penn is Matthew Poncelet, a Louisiana death-row inmate who contacts a local nun, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), hoping that she can help him get a reprieve. Early on, writer-director Tim Robbins (adapting Sister Helen's nonfiction account) defuses any cheap suspense about whether Matthew will get a stay of execution. Robbins is interested in the spiritual awakening of a sinner, a rapist and murderer, who knows he's going to die in a matter of days. Matthew's journey is awkward and gradual and sometimes too symbolic; Robbins keeps panning across trees long after we get his point that the roots of good as well as evil run deep.

At this point, though, I should point out that Dead Man Walking isn't quite as even-handed as many critics have claimed. Matthew's death is filmed in prolonged close-ups, so that we experience his lethal injection along with him; but during this, Robbins also shows us flashes of Matthew's murders -- which are shot in black and white, at a distance. Throughout the movie, Robbins has scrupulously depicted the agony of the victims' parents; but if we don't feel the full horror of what his victims experienced, we're not getting the whole picture. To say that the movie is neither for nor against capital punishment is disingenuous. Still, this is a fine and painful effort overall, far beyond the smug jokes of Robbins' directorial debut, Bob Roberts.

Robbins deserves credit for resisting the temptation to elevate both Sister Helen and Sarandon (the mother of Robbins' children) to sainthood. I kept monitoring Sarandon for signs of the gimme-a-break sentimentalism that might invalidate the whole performance; finally I gave up. Sarandon's task is perhaps even harder than Penn's. Without pushing it, she has to play a deeply spiritual woman who wants to treat everyone with kindness. And she pulls it off in some beautiful, understated moments when Sister Helen, talking to the parents of the boy and girl Matthew killed, tries to break through their rage and humbly admits, "I've never done this before." Sarandon gives us a woman who is fulfilled and contented but also complicated; it's a heroic performance in the deepest sense -- without ego.

The clock ticks towards Matthew's execution date, and Sister Helen agrees to be there when he dies -- as "a face of love" to comfort him. Meanwhile, she chips away at his defenses, struggling to get him to confess his crimes and redeem himself.

'Dead Man Walking' ends not with anger or despair but with a promise of peace, and Sean Penn -- peeling away each piece of Matthew's armor to reveal the bleeding humanity underneath -- keeps us with him until his final heartbeat. If pain and violence are inevitable, Robbins is saying, so are forgiveness and love.

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originally posted: 01/12/07 14:44:18
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User Comments

12/29/17 morris campbell harrowing & haunting 4 stars
3/02/08 Pamela White great acting 4 stars
10/24/07 Ivana Mann Unjustifiably self-congratulatory & self-righteous.Liberal masturbation! 2 stars
2/01/07 Matt Beautifully acted, well scripted. Whether you're pro or con, this is essential viewing 5 stars
1/12/07 Ole Man Bourbon The guy was only sorry when he was punished. Fuck him. 2 stars
9/16/06 Indrid Cold Brilliant. I love how it clearly takes a stand yet avoids self-righteous speeches. 5 stars
4/12/06 anthonyuk great film, great acting, penn and sarandon are true class 5 stars
7/09/05 ELI HOW THE HELL can someone not love this movie????? sarandon deserved that oscar! :) 5 stars
11/18/04 Sally Not very good 2 stars
4/23/04 Debbie Sherrod Excellent Movie 5 stars
1/08/04 Chlo Gyllenhaal Cochese, what the fuck? This was amazing - Sean's performance was Oscar-worthy! 5 stars
6/22/03 cochese Sarandon and Pen in it ; Robbins wrote it. These 3 make up everything I hate about H. Wood 1 stars
5/24/03 JoeSco Sarandon brings a brilliant purity to her role and Penn demonstrates great ability 5 stars
12/29/02 Jack Sommersby One of 1995's best. Penn is brilliant. 5 stars
11/25/02 Kyle Brilliant. Leaves you emotionally drained. Sarandon & Penn both are amazing. 5 stars
11/09/02 Stevo Amazing performances. Gruelling. Ending copped out a bit. 5 stars
1/23/02 Andrew Carden Sarandon Gave A Realistic and Excellent Performance. 5 stars
5/31/01 Ben Donnelly Brilliant is the word to describe this movie 5 stars
3/20/01 hot1 4u "Sarandon and Penn worked magic" ya, with my dick 1 stars
3/20/01 nandini its an experience to see the movie 5 stars
3/02/01 Misty If this movie does not change your mind about the death penalty, nothing will! It is great! 5 stars
2/13/01 Jake Sarandon and Penn worked magic. 5 stars
12/09/00 Viking We should all see this movie 5 stars
6/14/99 Dylan Sensitive and intelligent. 4 stars
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  29-Dec-1995 (R)

  29-Mar-1996 (15)

  02-Feb-1996 (MA)

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