DEAD MAN WALKING (1995) ***
I used to be a bit intolerant of the many moviegoers who looked first and foremost for film entertainment. Later I came to appreciate Joel McCrea's discovery. Applied to "Dead Man Walking" it means that this somber, serious movie cannot be everyone's cup of tea - but for others it ought to rank among the better productions of recent months.
The film adapts the real-life experiences of a nun, with some liberties, notably the character played by Sean Penn who now is a composite figure. Susan Sarandon, director Robbins's companion, plays Sister Helen Prejean who, coming from a rather high stratum of society, dedicates herself to good deeds. In New Orleans, she works among those who are poor and need of spiritual, material, psychological help -- and, above all, warmth.
When Matthew Poncelet(Penn) writes her from the Death Row of his Louisiana prison, she pays him a visit. Poncelet and a friend, high on drugs and booze, had killed a young couple in a Lovers' Lane, after raping the girl. Poncelet was condemned to death, his companion to life.
For years, Poncelet's execution was postponed while the man boned up on law books. He claims that he was only a bystander at the rape-killing. That's what he tells Sister Helen at their initial meeting, one of several.
That first interview is masterfully constructed, from the entrance of Sister Helen into the prison through her departure. Sarandon does not wear a nun's habit but street clothes, which make the prison's chaplain raise his eyebrows. I must stress that throughout, the film avoids Hollywoodisms fully yet not pointedly. Sarandon is never made sexy, though she could be, even at age 50. Her make-up is a mere touch of lipstick. Her clothes are discreet. She is neither colorful, preachy or a do-gooder.
Wasting no time, the Sister and the audience begin to see the mechanical, almost clinical procedures of the penitentiary, a series of standard operating procedures that follow one routine after another. They are dehumanizing. They are also necessary. So, enter the first batch of ambiguities that pervade the movie. Susan Sarandon handles her part with total credibility, her constant unease with ease.
In the interview, Sarandon and Penn are on either side of a wire partition. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins gives it a look unlike that of other prison movies by keeping before our eyes both the faces and the wires of Penn's cage.
Penn seems to plays Poncelet as if to the role born --effortlessly, naturally, as the embodiment of a low-lifer who'd rather be a lifer than a corpse. With his noticeable hair-do and eye-catching, pointed goatee, he is like Mephistopheles. Chained and chain-smoking, Poncelet can be defiant, surly, nervous, self-pitying, all at the same time.
Sister Helen, an ideal listener, leaves the prison determined to help Poncelet beat the death sentence. Does she believe him? Dopes she believe "in" him? Is it Christian charity? The belief in repentance and salvation? The "thou shall not kill" principle that goes against capital punishment, no matter what the crime? Ambiguities pile up.
The nun enlists the help of lawyer Robert Prosky, a great actor who can play roles from sinister to sweet with equal conviction. We also see her in contact with her own family and those of the victims, both sets disapproving her efforts--in further ambiguous, even disturbing ways (note the performance by Raymond J. Barry, the father of the slain girl). Poncelet's mother and brothers, at first suspicious, never become overtly grateful to Sister Helen, lachrymose or sentimentalized. Nor does Sean Penn in the increasingly complex rapport between the nun and the convict.
Relentlessly, realistically, the film proceeds to its bitter end, its grimness relieved by a major distraction, that of the questions raised for and by the film's people and the audience. There is a solitary humorous moment. Lost in her thoughts, Sister Helen speeds, is stopped by a cop. Seeing in her papers that she's a nun he becomes wary, tells her how he had ticketed an IRS man and gotten his (the cop's) tax return audited the following year.
"Dead Man Walking" is what the guards shout on the way to the execution chamber. By then, Poncelet has changed, in appearance, somewhat, in his heart ... who knows? There is a mea maxima culpa but, in another ambiguity, is this a redeemed, saved soul or (by necessity) an invalid transformation? And to what extent does the movie speak against capital punishment? I checked with a number of viewers. Some thought that this was a total indictment of state-sanctioned killing. Others were puzzled. One person, a liberal, not a conservative, took the position that between the living hell of life without parole, and death, execution was kinder and saved a great deal of public funds.
The total anti-capital punishment position is far clearer in a major ancestor of this movie, "We Are All Murderers," (France, 1952) by former lawyer Andre Cayatte. And the moral/ theological stance is clear in another French film, "A Condemned Man Escaped," (1956), about a member of the French Resistance, jailed and condemned by the occupying Nazis. The great, Catholic, ascetic director Robert Bresson concludes his film with "All is Grace." The salvation of body and soul are stated in an immensely moving way.
"Dead Man Walking" does have some flaws. When will filmmakers learn that superimposing opening credits on action and dialogue makes the audience miss parts of both? Why are there so many graphic flashbacks to the earlier crime? As a counterweight to any pity we might feel for Poncelet this is unnecessary. What is accomplished by the painful, detailed, protracted description of an execution by lethal injection?
No matter. " Dead Man" is strong and hard. Whatever its message about capital punishment, the familiar quote from John Donne is unarguably at the heart of the film: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main [...] therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."