A moving meditation on crime and punishment

By Doug Cummings
Arizona Daily Wildcat
January 25, 1996

Film Review

here's a scene in "Dead Man Walking" where two embittered parents of a daughter who was brutally murdered have just finished describing their residual anguish to a supporting nun. They wipe their eyes, grateful for her availability, and ask the nun when it was that she "changed her mind" and began ministering to the victim's family after she had previously been the spiritual counselor for the murderer, now on Death Row. The nun hesitantly explains that she is still serving as the murderer's spiritual cou nselor and suddenly, the couple explodes in fury. It is inconceivable to them that the cause of their anguish would be "worthy" of spiritual comfort.

It's part of the brilliance of "Dead Man Walking," the new film by Tim Robbins, that the audience sympathizes with the plights of both the guilty criminal and the victim's grieving relatives. The crime is presented as an abhorrent act and the criminal is never glamorized, but the film focuses on the violence on both ends of the issue and illustrates how intangible "justice" is in the face of loss. Can there ever really be restitution for murder? Is state execution any more "noble" than the initial killin g?

The film is based on the true story of Sister Helen Prejean, played by the always-watchable Susan Sarandon, a nun who believes her calling is to minister to the poor in Louisiana. She begins a correspondence with Matthew Poncelot, a Death Row inmate who i s accused of murdering two teenagers. Poncelot asks Helen to help appeal his execution and reduce his death sentence to life in prison. Though Helen has never had any experience ministering to criminals, she agrees to help Poncelot contact lawyers and mai l appeal forms, hoping to develop a relationship that will encourage Poncelot to evaluate his inner demons and seek spiritual reconciliation. But Poncelot, a calloused and racist man who denies any responsibility for his crime, remains preoccupied with hi s legal status and only picks tentatively at his spiritual condition.

Helen finds herself suddenly caught in a whirlwind of controversy. Her family suggests she's wasting her time on someone whose life is over while ignoring the children in her school, the ethnic children grow confused as her name appears in the newspaper a longside a man spouting racial slurs, the prison chaplain resents her desire to help Poncelot appeal his execution, and the victim's families angrily accuse her of ministering to the wrong "side."

Helen begins spending time with the victims' families as well, and discovers they have transformed their losses into a black-and-white clash of good and evil. They insist she cannot attend to both them and the murderer. By approaching the issue through th e eyes of someone seeking to provide spiritual healing, the violence on both sides of the law is equally tragic and the need for people to grow beyond simplistic pigeonholing rises to the fore.

The film was written for the screen and directed by Tim Robbins, the impressive actor-director who has quickly risen to prominence in recent years with his performances in "The Player," "The Hudsucker Proxy," and "The Shawshank Redemption" as well as his marvelous directorial debut, "Bob Roberts." "Dead Man Walking" is a grayer film than "Bob Roberts," his political satire on conservative rhetoric, and its approach is laudably courageous. Instead of condemning the Death Penalty issue by making an exaggera ted satire or melodrama about an "innocent man on Death Row," he presents a guilty, fearful man hiding from his soul and the victim's hurting relatives hiding from their loss. By treating all the characters with respect and highlighting their individual n eeds, Robbins approaches his subject with a high degree of dramatic vulnerability that is a welcome relief from Hollywood's usual didacticism. The result is a powerfully moving film that challenges the viewer to see the potential for healing amidst the tr aditional desire to compartmentalize people into easy icons of justice.

The performances in the movie are striking and evoke a sense of emotional honesty. Sarandon exudes empathy and determination marked by an inner conflict with her new ministry while Penn conveys a criminal with few redeeming values whose humanity seeps out when he least suspects it.

"Dead Man Walking" is the sort of wonderfully executed drama with standout performances and a relevant, controversial theme that was sorely missing last year. The film is technically low-key, with the exception of a few cross-cutting sequences and flashba cks of the murder, Robbins lets the camera stay out of the way of what is essentially a character-centered drama. Its ability to humanize the people in its story makes it one of the most moving and complex films of the past year.