1995, PolyGram. Directed by Tim Robbins. Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Depictions of murder, violence, and execution; profanity and coarse language.
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Dead Man Walking (DVD)
By Steven D. Greydanus
(Pre-DecentFilms capsule review) Compelling exploration of issues surrounding the death penalty, based on the true story of Sr. Helen Prejean (Sarandon, Robbin’s wife) and convicted murderer Matthew Poncelet (Penn).
Tim Robbins argues his point fearlessly, not taking the easy way out, not stacking the deck by emotionally manipulating the audience, but instead taking a worst-case scenario: Rather than giving us a murderer who isn’t really so bad, merely misunderstood and mistreated and so forth, Robbins gives us a thoroughly revolting individual, one who spouts racist propaganda not because he believes it but simply because it is shocking and antisocial and hateful; who tries to humiliate the one person interested in his welfare with leering come-ons aimed at her consecrated chastity.
Again, rather than making the victims’ families vengeful monsters to push the audience in the opposite direction, Robbins makes us feel their very real suffering and their incomprehension at Sr. Prejean’s compassion for him. And rather than trying to draw our attention away from the heinous nature of Poncelet’s crimes, Robbins rubs our noses in it, right up to the very end of the movie when if ever we are meant to sympathize with him. Robbins even suggests the symmetry of the victims’ suffering with Poncelet’s own, implying that there is an eye-for-an-eye parity between them.
And yet, the movie insists, Poncelet is neither a demon, nor a monster, nor an animal, but a human person, with an inalienable personal dignity that demands respect and even love. The victims’ families’ grief-stricken refusal to forgive is understandable, but Sr. Prejean’s is "the most excellent way."