Death and its effects have long been a theme for art. Film, literature, painting, dance and it goes on and on…they all have touched on this theme. Dead Man Walking is a film inspired by a true story. Helen Prejean is a Nun who comes into contact with a convicted rapist/murderer. He is on death row and Prejean becomes his religious counsellor. Prejean takes the job despite her reticent abhorrence of the man and eventually her feelings change. Dead Man Walking is not a film that hinges on the “did he/did he not” question. Matthew’s culpability is secondary to the plot of the film and it anything it only cements the main theme. The death penalty. For this is essentially what the film is about. It's is #83 on my list. of favourites.
Tim Robbins deserves much kudos for his work in this film. The direction of this film is incredibly astute. This could have gotten really schmaltzy and perhaps even sunk into camp…but it remains as realistic as a film can get. It's not a copout, but Robbins doesn't choose a side. It depnds on how you feel.
I always say that Sarandon as Helen is one of the smartest casting decisions. Without a word we must trust and believe…and we do. I always marvel that Oscar received her work so well. In a year of good, even great performances that were definitely more up their alley [Emma, Meryl, Sharon, Elisabeth] this was the most understated. It’s not that Oscar is biased and doesn’t go for the subtle, but this is just such an unsuspecting performance from her. It’s not really deglam, because Helen is not unattractive. She is just plain. Sean too has a huge amount on his shoulders. I always insist that Sean Penn has never been and will never be better. This film alone gives him a spot on my list. It’s a crime that he lost the Oscar. Not because Oscars are so important…but it’s just such a feat he performs so well.
Even for 1995 I feel that perhaps this film was ahead of its time. Perhaps, even today it would be ahead of its time. Criticism has reigned that the movie glorifies Matthew. I don’t think those persons saw the film. This is not a film about glorification or esteem. Maybe, the victims’ parents were one note, but this is not their story. The argument can’t be made as to who hurts more – Matthew’s family or theirs. It’s not valid – it’s not even necessary.
There are only two execution scenes that make me physically sick – Jason Butler Harner in Changeling and Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking. That last walk is traumatic and tense. I’ll even admit, I cried. I’m not wont to get excessively spiritual on you, but the themes of Dead Man Walking is obvious. Everyone has the potentiality of good in them, and the death penalty serves nothing. The injustices of the legal system are perverse world over and that’s what haunts us. Not that Matthew should not have been executed, but that Matthew may not have been executed.
Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn are at their best here. Neither fall into the cachet stereotypes of their characters. Helen is not a staunch, preachy Nun. And Matthew is not an irresolute, dastardly convict. Their performances are so layered and the best of their respective years. This film had a striking effect on me, which is why it is on my list. Whether or not you’re against or for the Death Penalty, I think it would be in good stead to see this film. It informs as much as it entertains.
And for that I think everyone should see...at least once.