Saturday 26 November 2011

Movie Review: Dead Man Walking (1995)

A death penalty drama, Dead Man Walking is a powerful examination of the rights and wrongs of penalizing killers by killing them. Written and directed by Tim Robbins and based on a true story, the film strives for clear-sighted balance, and Robbins draws an Academy Award-winning performances from his partner Susan Sarandon.

In Louisiana, social worker Sister Helen Prejean (Sarandon) receives a letter from convicted rapist and murderer Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), requesting her help. Found guilty in the rape and murder of two teens, he is about to be executed, and would like her to lead efforts to secure a pardon.

Helen has never assisted a death row convict before, and starts a series of meetings with Matthew at the State Penitentiary. Matthew is both physically imposing and emotionally dominating; Helen quickly finds herself believing his claims of innocence. The community turns against her, outraged that she is helping a brutal convict and ignoring the victims' families. Helen resets, establishes contact with the parents of the dead teens, gains a more balanced perspective, and starts to help Matthew spiritually come to terms with his life and actions as his legal appeals are exhausted and he heads for a final date with death by legal injection.

An intense study of two characters, Sarandon and Penn carry the film and soar with it. Much of Dead Man Walking consists of compelling one-on-one dialogue scenes, Sarandon and Penn portraying characters from different worlds sitting inches apart separated only by thick glass. The arc starts with Helen tentative but eager to help, making every possible mistake as she falls under Matthew's spell and forgets about the victims. Gradually she regains her composure, and recognizes her mission: saving Matthew from himself, since no one else will do it. In a race against time, Sarandon's triumph is to keep Helen tentative, vulnerable, and unsure as she finally guides Matthew to a confrontation with who he is.

In an Academy Award nominated performance, Sean Penn is just as intriguing. His Matthew Poncelet is arrogantly in denial, fully aware that his poverty and upbringing placed him at a huge societal disadvantage, and willing to embrace the fringes of behaviours and attitudes to compensate.

Robbins does not shy away from both sides of the death penalty argument. The brutality of Matthew's crime is slowly revealed throughout the film: the more Matthew is humanized through his encounters with Helen, the more his vicious past is brought into focus. And once Helen turns her attention to the parents of the slain victims, she finds their pain raw and their lust for justice unwavering.

Dead Man Walking proudly occupies the grey zone, where most of life takes places and there are no easy answers: just people who are the product of their circumstances dealing with the consequences of their actions.

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