Dead Man Walking

Dead Man Walking 1The 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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