Sunday, 17 April 2011

Scene On A Sunday: Dead Man Walking

One of the Scene On a Sunday features I did last year was the hanging of Northcott in Changeling (I’m still championing Jason Butler Harner’s fine performance). I’m all for ceremony, so I decided I’d celebrate the return of the feature with another execution – but a more modern one, straight of Tim Robins’ Dead Man Walking.
Robbins doesn’t always appear on lists when actors turned directors are spoken of, but I find Dead Man Walking to be one of the strongest films of the nineties, period – and possibly the strongest on the death penalty. I had actually decided, at first, on doing the scene immediately before the execution where Susan Sarandon’s Sister Helen and Sean Penn’s Matthew Poncelet have that heart to heart – but, in many ways, that execution is an encapsulation of all that Robbins is hoping to achieve with the film. And, as elsewhere, Sarandon and Penn are in top form.
I love Sarandon’s performance here so much, but I still can’t say if I prefer it to her work in Thelma & Louise and Bull Durham (the tree make up her holy trimester for sure, though). I remember when Alex was writing on her work in The Client he noted how Susan has that natural charisma that makes you – in most cases – quick to trust her.
She’s so distressed there waiting for Matthew to start making his fateful walk, and this shot – especially with her pensive expression – is such a fine pronouncement of her feelings.
And then she looks up and sees the parents.
Raymond Bary is perfectly cast as Mr. Delacroix. He just has the perfect formidable countenance.
That man, there, is blocking the parents of the other victim – Mr. and Mrs. Percy.
I’m sure it’s just incidental, but the Father looks so sinister with his hands clasped in that shot above. And even Helen seems to feel the trepidation, although it’s only natural at an execution.

She turns to her left and we see...
The first image of him with the guards flanking him is obscured by the wood and glass on the door. Robbins’ just keeps up that imprisoned motif,
and the hand of that officer there looks so large and terrifying.
Matthew: “Give me my boots. I want my boots. A grown man going to his death in a diaper and slippers.”
He’s talking about something that we’ll see later, but death-row prisoners walk to their death with slippers and plastic diapers on. In his commentary Robbins was saying that that was the most humiliating thing about the whole experience. It’s not only the fact that these men are getting killed, but the indignity with which they are led to it.
Matthew: “I’ll be done with all this. No more bars, no more cells, no more life in a cage.”
I love that faux-defiant look he gives Helen there.
Helen: “Matt.”
Between Margaret Schlegel and Helen Prejean, I’m so proud that the Academy rewarded these subtler female performances. Susan is so without ceremony here, and her very voice is calming – which, of course, you can’t hear. What happens, though, is almost as if her eerily still voice reminds him that this really is the end.
Matthew: “Sister Helen, I’m gonna die.”
That shot of him almost falling down there is so striking. Robbins doesn’t go over-the-top with the direction, but Matthew’s fear there is so well played.
Helen: “You know the truth. The truth has made you free.”
Only Susan could sell this line. I’ll admit, Dead Man Walking is better directed than it is written. Not that the dialogue is poor, but it’s so without embellishments that it almost comes off as ordinary at times – which, of course, is the point.
Matthew: “God knows the truth about me. I’m going to a better place and I’m not worried about nothing.
Matthew: “You all right?”
This is one of those moments I just love, even if it’s just so strange. Matthew is trying to be strong here for Helen, which is so odd because she’s – meanwhile – trying to be strong for him.
Helen: “Yes, I’m ok. Christ is here.”
Matthew: “I’m not worried about it.”
Her eyes there, they’re so empty but the rest of her face is trying to smile.
Helen: “Ok. Look, I want the last thing you see in this world to be a face of love. So, you look at me when they do this thing.”
Helen: “You look at me. I’ll be the face of love for you.”
Matthew: “Yes, ma’am.”
I often wonder if a lesser film might have tried to exacerbate for a romantic rapport between Helen and Matthew. What’s so great about that exchange is how devoid of romanticism it is, which makes the connection between the two all the more profound.
Hartman (OS): “Time to go, Poncelet.”
But, of course, this is an execution we’re headed to, so no time for sentiment.

Matthew: “Can Sister Helen touch me?”
He’s such a child there.
Man: “Yes, she may.”
Officer: “Dead man walking.”

I hadn’t even realised until Tim said it, but this is the first time in the film that Matthew and Helen have any physical contact, so that moment is filled with so much more profundity than the ostensible.
And those two shots, there, of the slippers and the diaper. Robbins said that they had to hold up shooting for two days because they couldn’t find the correct slippers which is somewhere between ridiculous and meticulous – I’m not sure which end it’s closer to.

There’s a singer vocalising as this all ensues, and those expressions tell you as much as you need to know about what the two are feeling.
One of my favourite shots of the scene, right there above.
 Helen: “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed thee. I have called upon thy name. Thou art mine. Should thou pass through the sea, I shall be with thee. Should thee walk through the fire, thou shalt not be scorched....”
Priest: “I’ve received your soul in the name of the son and the holy spirit.”
And the walk comes to an end.

This is such an aside, but I do wonder how they got Sean Penn’s hair to stay up like that through the entire film.
Matthew: “Will you check in on my Mama from time to time?”
Helen: “Yes, Matt. You have my word on that.”
So, the two are separated now and its credit to Susan that she’s able to show all this pronounced grief with such subtle emoting.

 That’s such a nice moment there where he holds her hand.
She’s forced to do most of her work, in this scene especially, through reaction shots which could be so easily ignored. Like the opening of the scene, she’s looking across – with much feeling – the victims’ parents.
Those are the Percy’s there and then Mr. Delacroix. I can’t pinpoint what it is precisely, but I love how those two shots are presented.
And then she turns to face the front with that moving expression on her face.
 That shot of the man opening the curtain is so irreverent, it seems – almost as if he’s opening it for some grand show.
Do you get any sense of Christ Imagery here? I hadn’t even thought to it, but while speaking of how accurate they tried to present everything Robbins noted that some critics had spoken of the Christ imagery in this particular moment. Incidentally, as Robbins noted, this is exactly what the Louisiana set-up looks like.
Man (OS): “Do you have any last words, Poncelet?”
Matthew: “Yes, sir. I do.
I don’t think that Penn will ever top this performance as far as I’m concerned. He’s just brilliant here, and I’m still irked that he lost that Oscar – Nicolas Cage of all people. But, that’s all blood under the bridge.
Matthew: “Mr. Delacroix, I don’t want to leave this world with any hate in my heart. I ask your forgiveness for what I done. It was a terrible thing I done, taking your son away from you.”
(In case you haven’t seen the film, Poncelet only killed Delacroix’s son.)

Mr. Percy: “How about us?”
I always feel the urge to slap him, and I love the expression on his wife’s face.
Matthew: “Mr. and Mrs. Percy, I hope my death gives you some relief.
It’s not exactly a smile, but that expression of content that Susan shows there is so fitting. Of course this is the moment she chooses to show her pride in where Matthew has come, and it’s no mean feat considering how he was at the beginning of the film.
 Matthew: “I just wanna say that I think killing is wrong, no matter who does it. Whether it’s me, or you all, or your government.”
That, right there, is probably the most profound line of the entire film – which I agree, one hundred percent.
 And we head back to the ceremony of the death
Matthew: “I love you.”
No matter how often I watch this movie, that moment always seems really random to be – not necessarily in bad way, but just odd.

I love Helen’s (silent) response, but it’s the shot I love – how his image is reflected in the glass making him seem much nearer – corporeally – to her than he really is.
Almost as if she thinks he’s near, too.

And, so it begins.
What’s great about what comes after is that Robbins makes us care for Matthew, makes us question the death penalty and then heads back to the murder in its actuality – which is such a significant point for me. He’s testing us, really. Does seeing the murder make us do an about-face and decide that the death penalty is just?

 And, what works most for me, is that those flashback scenes are juxtaposed with Helen and what we know she thinks of Matthew – even all the while knowing that he is guilty.
 Those machines are just terribly foreboding.
I wonder what sort of direction was given to Susan, here. She’s forced to really feel for Matthew here so that the reaction shots of her could seem authentic, and they do.

Death in a tube.
Notice again how Helen’s eyes take us back into the flashbacks; as if, once again, to assure us that she does know of this and that she’s still there in his corner, being that “face of love” for him.
That is a chilling image, though.
It’s getting closer to the end

What do those expressions mean? So very ambiguous.
Mr. Delacroix looks overcome, and Mr. Percy looks disgusted.
Another great shot from Robbins, above.
And Helen takes us back, again.
And the drugs keep on doing their work.
And, Helen begins to pray.

Isn’t that a beautiful shot of the victims over Matthew? Peter Sarsgaard when he was young (his first film role).

And then that great duo of the eyes of the protagonists.

Then the victims, then Matthew...
What a great scene, even if it’s awfully depressing.
What do you think of Sarandon and Penn in Dead Man Walking? Are you a fan of Robbins' work?


The Mad Hatter said...

Fantastic post. This was the film that woke me up and first showed me that movies could be something more.

For a while now I've credited it with instigating my love for cinema.

Fritz said...

One of the greatest movies ever, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I loved the ending...that racist murderer and rapist got what he deserved!