Actor Tim Robbins’s first film as a director was Bob Roberts (1992), a political satire that remains relevant to this day. The movie revealed a filmmaker who was passionate and outspoken about his beliefs, and when Dead Man Walking emerged as his second directorial effort there was reason to believe that he would use the material as a bully pulpit to denounce capital punishment. That didn’t happen. What we got in lieu of preaching to the choir about the ills of the death penalty was a filmmaker who had matured considerably.
In Louisiana, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) has spent six years on death row and knows that his time is running out. He contacts Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), a Roman Catholic, and asks for help. Helen has never done anything like this before, but decides to visit Matthew at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The man she meets there was convicted of murder and rape, but he’s still blaming a buddy who got life in prison and he wants Helen to help him with a final appeal. The nun is intrigued by Matthew and agrees to do it. She finds an experienced attorney, Hilton Barber (Robert Prosky), to handle his case, and over time Helen and Matthew learn to overcome their differences and establish a bond of trust.
However, the parents of the teenage couple who were murdered by Matthew and his friend refuse to understand why a nun would spend so much time with an evil man…
Void of firebrand preaching
The real-life Sister Helen has become a prominent advocate for abolishing the death penalty and this film fuses two of her “clients”, Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie (both executed in 1984), into one character. Most of the people involved in this film are no supporters of capital punishment. Still, Robbins’s approach is careful and void of firebrand preaching, inviting us into the “world” of death penalty through the inexperienced eyes of Helen, who gets to witness the bizarre rigor surrounding death row inmates, the fear, denial and bullshitting that is part of the convict’s life, and the deep hatred and sorrow that mark the lives of the victims’ parents.
The deep-set emotions and far from reasonable opinions originating from these people is all very shocking to Helen whose primary task is to offer spiritual guidance to whomever needs it, be it a racist murderer or a grieving relative. Sarandon is perfect as the audience’s representative, and her scenes with Penn (who’s equally forceful as the human being behind the “monster”) has dialogue and emotional intensity that makes one unable to divert eyes. Robbins maintains an impressive balance throughout, creating an effective contrast between the coldness of the prison and warmth of those who get to live their lives; even though he makes sure that we care for the essentially simple-minded Matthew and his family, Robbins never allows us to forget just how heinous the man’s crimes were. Some might call the director a coward for not taking a stand, but it takes a special courage to see the world as more complex than good or evil.
There is much talk about religion in the film, perhaps even one confrontation too many between Helen and characters who support the death penalty (relatives, guards, a pastor of all people) who have the same question for her: How can you, a nun, give this murderer comfort?
In the end though, Robbins is simply opposed to hatred. There may be perfectly understandable reasons why we hate, and so hard to let go of it, but nothing good ever comes out of it.
Dead Man Walking 1995-U.S. 122 min. Color. Produced by Jon Kilik, Rudd Simmons, Tim Robbins. Written and directed by Tim Robbins. Book: Helen Prejean. Song: “Dead Man Walkin'” (Bruce Springsteen). Cast: Susan Sarandon (Helen Prejean), Sean Penn (Matthew Poncelet), Robert Prosky (Hilton Barber), Raymond J. Barry, R. Lee Ermey, Celia Weston… Peter Sarsgaard, Jack Black.
Trivia: Later an opera.
Oscar: Best Actress (Sarandon). Berlin: Best Actor (Penn).
Last word: “When someone says ‘You’re doing a political movie’, like about ‘Dead Man Walking’, I have a problem with that. Because I think that movie is about love and compassion. It’s a story about two people growing to know each other, more than being about anything political. I just think the word ‘political’ is used too broadly, and if you think about what politics is, and what politicians are, it really has nothing to do with humanitarian things, or exploration of the human condition. I guess that’s what I’m trying to do with my stuff – ask questions and explore different themes and ideas.” (Robbins, A.V. Club)