Complex. Provocative. Persuasive. Based on Sister Helen Prejean's book, Dead Man Walking presents an exceptional view on the death penalty, murder and the way crime affects the victims' families, the accused's family and those supporting them.
Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) meets with accused murderer Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) at Angola State Penitentiary. He's asked her for help in his bid to get his death sentence commuted. He denies committing the crimes with which he's charged. She helps him secure legal aid. As she gets to know him, she's troubled by his racism as she works with children of color and his denial of involvement in the crimes.
During a hearing, she's confronted by the parents of the couple Poncelet is convicted of murdering. The confrontations leave her shaken. She visits them and hears what they have experienced at the premature death of their young kids with futures. She also meets Poncelet's mother and brothers (Jack Black has a bit role as one of the Poncelet's brothers, while Peter Sarsgaard plays the male victim). The couples have faced the tragedies differently--one couple actively holds on to their anger, while the other has, to a lesser extent, but their marriage has suffered.
When Poncelet is denied a commute of his death sentence and asks Prejean to be his spiritual counselor, the stakes rise. It's a first for her; in fact, it's a first for any woman. She knows the duty she faces in helping him take responsibility and repent in the few days he has left. The movie approaches religion in a way that entices rather than repels the viewer, regardless of spiritual beliefs. The ability to empathize with oppositional characters with varied levels of conflicts is what makes Dead Man Walking special. The death penalty and religion are polarizing issues, yet this movie takes a curious twist.
Sarandon and Penn are excellent. Her character is vulnerable, strong and authentic. At times, she struggles with her support. Penn's character is rough, stubborn and crass. He's also vulnerable and scared. As you learn more about him, you don't condone his viciousness, but you understand him better.
This is Tim Robbins' directorial masterpiece--the cinematography, the emotion his actors bleed and the compelling story. An excellent piece that stands the test of time.
Director: Tim Robbins
Run time: 122 minutes