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With: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky, Raymond J. Barry, R. Lee Ermey, Celia Weston, Lois Smith
Written by: Tim Robbins, based on the book by Helen Prejean
Directed by: Tim Robbins
MPAA Rating: R for a depiction of a rape and murder
Running Time: 122
Date: 29/12/1995

Dead Man Walking (1995)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Death Row

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sean Penn's Matthew Poncelet has a high Elvis-style hairdo and talks in a mumbled accent; some of his words slip away from you. He is a convicted murderer. Hollywood dictates that this either be a "likable" character or an over the top "villain" who chomps up the scenery. Penn plays him as an angry man, an honest man, whom we can see as a real person. As we grow to see him like this, we see that we don't want him to die.

Susan Sarandon plays Sister Helen Prejean, a nun whom Poncelet latches onto for support in his final days. At first Poncelet, Prejean and a lawyer try to get him off death row. If this were an ordinary movie, he would get a pardon at the last minute, just as we realized that he was truly innocent. But this is not an ordinary movie. Poncelet is not innocent and he will die. Dead Man Walking is about what happens to him and Sister Prejean in the six days before his execution.

While the movie may sound horrifying and hard to take, it is handled with extraordinary grace and gentleness by second-time writer and director Tim Robbins. His first was Bob Roberts, which was an interesting, but flawed film. There was little indication in that film that Robbins would be able to pull off a film like Dead Man Walking, but he does.

Although this is a film that relies mainly on its characters and their conversations, Robbins reveals some occasionally stunning, but not necessarily flashy, visuals. The many scenes in which we see Sarandon and Penn talking through screens and glass are given a resonance that a lesser director would have overlooked. For example, we see Penn with the wire mesh in front of his face in hard focus, while the wire mesh in front of Sarandon's face is in soft focus. We see Sarandon talking with the victim's father and the camera slowly pulls back to frame the two in a doorway. These are pictures that Robbins allows us to read our own feelings into, whereas another director would have preached to us.

These actors give two of the finest performances I have ever seen. While I enjoy a good over the top villain, or a cool debonair hero, these characters are riddled with nuances and are not easy characters to play. Penn has the job of convincing us that he is a human being with feelings and regrets and is worth saving. Sarandon has the more difficult job of listening. She spends more screen time listening to other people talk that she does talking. Her eyes, and hands and body are her performance. We can watch her eyes alone and see love, uncertainty, guilt, hope, anger. It is another strong performance in a great career by a great actress. (She should win the Oscar for this one. This is not just a throwaway performance like The Client.)

When the end finally comes and Penn marches to his death, I cried like I can't ever remember crying in a movie. It is an earned ending, not trivial, not forced and not drowned in sugary music. The final images are of Poncelet himself finally admitting his guilt and crying, making the final walk with Sister Helen's arm on his shoulder; the first time he is allowed to be touched, a real, tender touch that we can feel, his whole body wracked and shaking as he says his final words, and his final "I love you" to Prejean; not a romantic statement, but one of genuine, human love. These shots are as passionate and true as anything I've ever seen in cinema.

Dead Man Walking is one courageous film, one of the very best of its time. A sincere thank you from the bottom of my heart to Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn for giving us such a treasure.

In 2011, MGM and Fox released a deluxe Blu-Ray edition; it comes with a Tim Robbins commentary track, and a trailer.

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