September 6, 2020
Dead Man Walking (1995)
Grade: 67/100

Director: Tim Robbins
Stars: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky

What it's about. A prison death row drama. Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) is pending execution via lethal injection. Without legal or financial resources, he writes to death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon). She meets him at the prison, and despite his racism, and the brutal murders he has committed, convinces pro bono lawyer Hilton Barber (Robert Prosky) to attempt to stay the execution.

Barber's efforts fail, and Poncelet is scheduled for execution. Prejean agrees to be his spiritual advisor for his final day. Prejean's advocacy draws strong mixed emotions from the parents of his murder victims, especially dazed Earl Delacroix (Raymond J. Berry). The supporting cast includes R. Lee Ermey (the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket) as another grieving parent, Jack Black as Poncelet's younger brother, and Roberta Maxwell as Poncelet's overwhelmed mother.

Dead Man Walking was based on a true story. The real-life Sister Helen Prejean was spiritual advisor to two men executed in 1984 for unrelated murders. Both died by the electric chair. Later, the story became a stage play and an opera.

How others will see it. Like Robert Redford, Tim Robbins is a director better known as an actor, especially for his role in The Shawshank Redemption. But Robbins had a major critical success in 1995 with Dead Man Walking, and also helped his partner Susan Sarandon win Best Actress, her only win in five such nominations. Robbins received a nomination for Best Director, as did Sean Penn for Best Actor.

Due to its cast and Oscar success, Dead Man Walking fared well at the box office. Today at, the film has a respectable 87K user votes and a high user rating of 7.5 out of 10. The user reviews lavish the expected praise on writer/director Robbins and actors Penn and Sarandon. Negative reviews tend to come from conservatives who favor the death penalty and regard the movie as liberal propaganda.

How I felt about it. While the source material ensures that Sister Prejean's portrayal will be nearly saintly throughout, the surprise is that the death row rapist and murderer Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) is such a deep and credible character.

It is too easy to suggest that Sarandon landed her plum role due to her relationship with Robbins, which produced two children. But the truth of the matter is that Sarandon is ideally cast, as she is able to project the mixed emotions of strength, empathy, contempt, and faith.

Still, it is easier to play a nearly perfect nun than it is to portray a murderer. Penn could have made Poncelet a monster, cunning like Hannibal or dripping with menacing evil like Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear. Instead, Poncelet is a racist man of poor judgment who is prone to hateful rages. But he is human as well, and in rare moments of reflection apart from his usual self-pity, he learns to regret the terrible things he did that one night that put him on death row.

The film raises the question as to whether her social work would be better spent on those who can still participate in life. Is the soul of one man, especially that of a condemned killer, worth the devoted efforts of a nun? Is it publicity that she seeks, or is she making a statement that even the lowest of man can achieve salvation? Of course, the film suggests the latter and not the former.

Sister Prejean cannot perform a miracle. Poncelet does not become a born-again Christian who quotes scripture with glazed eyes. On the other hand, his final words are expressions of sorrow and not thunderous declamations.

A slow-moving film, Dead Man Walking is also a downer. But while it will never be viewed with the same frequency as an Austin Powers movie, it offers far greater insights into both character and culpability.