A convicted murderer on Death Row and the nun who befriends him. Through the portrayal of finely drawn characters and their interactions as the days, hours, and minutes tick down to the condemned man's execution, powerful emotions are unleashed. While Matthew Poncelet and Sister Prejean desperately try to gain a stay of execution from the governor or the courts, scenes are intercut from the brutal crime, gradually revealing the truth about the events that transpired. In addition to her temporal help, the nun also tries to reach out spiritually and assist as a guide to salvation. Written by
Tad Dibbern <DIBBERN_D@a1.mscf.upenn.edu>
In the heart-shaped symbol at the end of the credits, the initials EMLA, JHR, MGR, and SS stand for Tim Robbins' family with Susan Sarandon (SS) -- Jack Henry Robbins and Miles Guthrie Robbins (their two sons together) and Eva Maria Livia Amurri (Sarandon's daughter with Franco Amurri). See more »
In a world in which debatable and misunderstood subjects can be listed endlessly, this powerful 1995 film takes on one at the top of that list; moreover, it does it objectively and realistically, and with a sensibility and sensitivity that makes it a truly great film by anyone's measuring stick. And to add some irony to it all, even the subject matter of this film has been widely misunderstood, as it is wrongly perceived that this is a film about the pros and cons of the death penalty; it is not. At the heart of `Dead Man Walking,' directed by Tim Robbins, is a subject that in reality is possibly the most misunderstood of all, and with good reason, because it just may be the hardest thing there is for a human being to really-- and truly-- understand. And it is what this film is actually all about: Forgiveness. Real forgiveness; not excusing a heinous crime or the perpetrator thereof-- not saying that what's happened is okay-- but finding the strength to go on, and to do so by choosing life.
Director/screenwriter Tim Robbins has crafted and delivered a faithful adaptation of the novel by Sister Helen Prejean, in which she discusses her involvement with the death-row inmates to whom over the years she has ministered her faith in God. As chronicled in the film, what for her was to become a lifelong pursuit of not only justice, but human dignity, began with a simple letter from a death-row inmate at the Louisiana State Prison at Angola. Sentenced to death for rape and murder, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) was reaching out to anyone who would listen, when his letter ended up in the hands of Sister Prejean (Susan Sarandon), who soon found herself venturing into a territory of which she had absolutely no knowledge or experience. And Robbins has successfully captured Sister Prejean's emotional and turbulent journey succinctly, while managing to keep it devoid of any maudlin sentimentality, which makes it not only real, credible and believable, but makes it a poignant and thoroughly emotionally involving experience for the audience. Through the medium of the cinema, what was once a personal, significant emotional experience for Sister Prejean, becomes one for everyone who sees this film, as well.
For her soul-stirring, impassioned portrayal of Sister Prejean, Susan Sarandon deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actress. Sensitive and fraught with emotional depth, her performance is incredibly touching and real, especially in the way in which she conveys Sister Prejean's underlying natural fragility and vulnerability, which she adamantly tempered with the toughness she needed to carry on with her endeavors on behalf of Poncelet (and in reality, a total of five since she began). Whatever your point of view regarding the matters examined in this film, Sister Prejean is without question an individual of heroic proportions, which Sarandon exquisitely personifies here; and she does it without resorting to any superfluous melodramatics, but rather by keeping it real, by subtly and humbly exploring the humanity of the person in a very believable expression of characterization. It's an extraordinary performance, arguably the best of Sarandon's brilliant career.
Turning in a career-best performance, as well, is Sean Penn, who was nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of Poncelet (he lost out to Nicolas Cage, who won for his performance in `Leaving Las Vegas). Perfect for the part in every way, Penn has quite simply never been better, before or since. He effectively presents Poncelet as a real person, rather than as an overblown caricature of a monster capable of perpetrating the crimes depicted here. Not that it makes Poncelet any less despicable; just the opposite, in fact. It makes it genuinely disconcerting to be faced with the fact that someone who looks like a guy who could live next door to you could be capable of such things. And that's the strength of Penn's performance-- it's so disturbingly real, presented with depth and nuance; you have but to look into his eyes to find the imperfections of a troubled soul. A terrific performance, and -- as good as Cage was in `Vegas'-- Penn should have received the Oscar for it.
In another stand-out performance, Raymond J. Barry is memorable in a supporting role as Earl Delacroix, father of one of Poncelet's victims. With limited screen time, he nevertheless develops his character in such a way that enables you to empathize with him, as well as with Sister Prejean, as it is through him that we are given some insight into just how complex and seemingly tenuous her position is, at least on the surface. Barry presents Delacroix in such a way that gives the necessary balance and perspective to the story, which is ultimately extremely effective and helps to underscore the message of the film.
The supporting cast includes R. Lee Emery (Clyde Percy), Celia Weston (Mary Beth Percy), Lois Smith (Helen's Mother), Scott Wilson (Chaplin Farley), Roberta Maxwell (Lucille Poncelet), Margo Martindale (Sister Colleen) and Jack Black (Craig Poncelet). It is doubtful that this film will change anyone's mind one way or another about the death penalty, but that was never the intention; what was intended, was to make a thought-provoking, emotionally involving film, which is exactly what Robbins has accomplished with `Dead Man Walking.' Regardless of your personal point of view, this film will have an impact, and hopefully will open some minds to the true nature of forgiveness. For, as we see through the character of Earl Delacroix, true forgiveness is not something one merely decides to do, but is a task that can become a lifetime's work. And it's possibly one of the hardest things in life to effectively accomplish; and you come away from this film with an appreciation for individuals like Sister Prejean, who has selflessly dedicated her life to helping those in need, and to filmmakers like Robbins and Sarandon for bringing her to life for millions of people who otherwise would never have known her. I rate this one 10/10.
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