Superbly adapted and directed by Tim Robbins from the nonfiction book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, this spiritually enlightened drama is too intelligent to traffic in polemics or self-righteous pontifications ... more »against the death penalty. But in examining the issue of capital punishment from a humanitarian perspective, the film urges thoughtful reflection on the justifications for legally ending a human life. Although it features a fine supporting cast, the film maintains its sharp focus through flawless lead performances by Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon as the Catholic nun Prejean, and Sean Penn as the death-row killer she struggles to save. Robbins avoids a biased message, letting the movie examine both sides of the issue instead (R. Lee Ermey gives a fine performance as the grief-stricken father of one of Penn's victims). As the drama unfolds and Penn's execution deadline grows near, Dead Man Walking is graced by compelling depths of theme and character, achieving an emotional impact that demands further reflection and removes the stigma of piousness from socially conscious filmmaking. --Jeff Shannon« less
Gayle V. from CLARKSVILLE, TN Reviewed on 7/20/2010...
It would be hard to "enjoy" a movie like this, but it was very compelling. I assumed it would be dramatized with a typical Hollywood liberal sympathy, but it seemed very objectively portrayed. Opponents and supporters of the death penalty ought to see it I think. It has brought the book to my interest, which is saying something for a movie. I heartily agree with Sarandon's receiving the Oscar for this role and I think Penn's performance was Oscar-worthy as well.
Not easy to watch, very emotional at the end, but not in a bleeding-heart kind of way, just a human way.
If you need a cathartic, thought-provoking movie experience, this is a good one.
Of monsters, murder and divine mercy.
Themis-Athena | from somewhere between California and Germany | 02/03/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
""Sister, I won't ask for forgiveness; my sins are all I have," sings Bruce Springsteen in this movie's title song while the end credits roll over the screen - giving voice once more to Matthew Poncelet and the men portrayed in Sister Helen Prejean's nonfiction account on which this movie is based; that angry "white trash," those men who are "God's mistake," as one victim's father says, inconsolable over the loss of his daughter; those men locked up in high security prisons for unspeakable crimes which many of them claim they didn't commit. And Matt Poncelet (Sean Penn) is just such a guy; locked in bravado and denial, he proclaims his innocence and would rather take a lie detector test on the day of his execution "so my momma knows I didn't do this" than own up to his responsibility.
With Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), we first learn about the crime which landed Poncelet on death row - the rape-murder of a couple on lovers' lane - from the account she receives when she starts writing to him and eventually agrees to visit him in prison. It is, as she will soon learn, a story that anti-death penalty advocates are all too familiar with; a story of unequal access to lawyers and of two defendants, each blaming all guilt for their crime exclusively on the other, regardless what truly happened. And as long as she is assured that even if Poncelet would have a new trial he wouldn't go free (as an accomplice, under Louisiana state law he would receive a lifetime prison sentence), Sister Helen is willing to help him find a lawyer and, when the date for his execution is set, try to obtain a reprieve.
But it does not end there, as she soon finds out; and one of this movie's greatest strengths is the way in which it portrays all sides of the moral issues involved in the death penalty. There are the victims' families, a stunning 70% of which break up after the murder of a child, and who are forever stuck with the unloving last words spoken to their loved ones and the memory of all the little homely details reminding them of their loss. There are the prison guards and nurses, trying to see executions as "part of their job" - with varying success. There are the politicians, barking slogans on TV; promising to "get tough on sentencing, get tough on lenient parole boards, get tough on judges who pass light sentences." There are the convicts' families, marginalized as a result of their brothers' and sons' acts, particularly if they refuse to condemn them publicly. ("Now I'm famous," Poncelet's mother comments bitterly on the dubious celebrity status she has attained as a result of a TV show about Matt. "A regular Ma Barker!") And there is the death penalty itself, shown in all its chilling, graphic, clinical detail, here in its allegedly most humane form: lethal injections, which tranquilize the muscles while the poison reaches the convict's lungs and heart - "his face goes to sleep while his inside organs are going through Armageddon," Poncelet's attorney says at his pardon board hearing. "It was important to us to show all sides of the issue," explains director Tim Robbins on the DVD's commentary track, "not to be satisfied with soundbites, and to present the reality ... Ultimately, the question is not who deserves to die, but who has the right to kill."
At the heart of the story are two radically different individuals: Sister Helen, who has grown up in an affluent, loving family; and Matthew Poncelet, the convicted killer. And their portrayal is this movie's other great strength: without either of them, this film would not have been half as compelling. Both Sarandon and Penn deliver Academy Award-worthy performances. (Sarandon did win her long overdue Oscar, Penn lost to Nicolas Cage for "Leaving Las Vegas" - this would have been an occasion where I would have favored a split award.) Gradually, very gradually we see them get to know each other; and as they do, the visual layers separating them in the prison visiting room are peeled away. Yet, even after he has learned to accept Sister Helen as a human being (not without attempting to come on to her as if she were not a nun - director Tim Robbins's way of dispelling the notion that they might fall in love, as is so often the case in the more cliched versions of this type of story), Poncelet insists that his participation was limited to holding one of the victims down, but that it was his accomplice who raped and killed them both. And even days before his execution, he is still looking for "loopholes" in the bible, as Sister Helen admonishes him, seeing redemption as a free ticket into heaven instead of a means of owning up to his responsibility. ("I like that," he comments when she quotes Jesus's "the truth shall make you free." "So I pass that lie detector test, I'm home free.") Only in his final hour, he slowly, gradually gives up the protective layers of his bravado and lays bare his raw nerve and innermost anguish. And while he speaks, finally, in a complete flashback, we, the viewers, see what really happened that dark and lonely night in the woods, and what all the previous partial flashbacks have not revealed.
"It is easy to kill a monster, but hard to kill a human being," Poncelet's attorney once explains; and Tim Robbins echoes that sentiment on the commentary track. Yet, this movie is not about romanticizing a brutal killer, any more than it is about demonizing his victims. It is, first and foremost, an attempt to bring a complete perspective to one of contemporary America's most pressing problems, and to find a way past sorrow and hate and move towards the future. And even if you're still for the death penalty after having watched it - don't claim ignorance as to what is involved.
Also recommended: Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account Of The Death Penalty In The United States Actual Innocence: When Justice Goes Wrong and How to Make it Right Monster (Special Edition) Mystic River (Three-Disc Collector's Edition) Dead Man Walking"
What amazing performances
Linda Sackstein | Raanana Israel | 02/10/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Both Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon give the performance of their lives. This is such an emotional film and the story behind it is amazing. Tim Robbins' direction is spot on. Was thoroughly entranced from beginning to end. Although the story deals with death row and the death penalty, both highly explosive subjects, I was able to detach myself because of the actors' performances. Strongly recommended."
YOU WILL NEVER FORGET THIS FILM
frisky2000 | smallville | 01/04/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Table all pre-conceived notions of whether Capital Punishment is wrong or right. Set aside your personal opinions on how society views convicted killers. DEAD MAN WALKING examines all sides of the coin, from the eyes of the victims, their families, the legal system, religious counselors and finally the convict himself. Sean Penn is almost scary in his portrayal of Matthew Poncellet. With convincing facial expressions, voice and demeanor, Penn nails every scathing, miserable characteristic of a "white trash" criminal with no remorse for his chosen way of life and his lack of respect for everything and everyone in his world. By the film's end, your heart can't help but bleed for him in is agony, but what a pity it took the tragedy of murder to bring him to his knees.Susan Sarandon perfectly portrays a kind and gentle Sr. Helen Prejean (who makes a cameo appearance in the film at a candlelight demonstration outside the prison).WARNING: This movie is very painful to watch, and certain scenes of violence, aside from the final execution by lethal injection, may disturb the faint-hearted."
A Heartwrenching Exploration of the Death Penalty
Daniel R. Sanderman | Portland, OR United States | 10/27/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"DEAD MAN WALKING is one of the most powerful films I have seen in a long time. In terms of pure "guts," this film takes the cake. Watching it just makes me wonder why Tim Robbins doesn't step up to the director's plate more often. This film is a testament to good filmmaking: great technique, beautiful shots, outstanding performances, and the avoidance of cliché. DEAD MAN WALKING, as its name suggests, tells the moving story of Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), a nun who winds up responding to an inmate's (Sean Penn) cry for help and soon finds herself in over her head. What follows is an emotional journey: an exploration of the death penalty that refuses (at every turn) to drop into ideology and formula.
And let me tell you why. Most films that deal with the philosophy behind the death penalty tend to "choose sides." On the one hand, the state is depicted as a fickle body that mercilessly puts innocent men to die, while the victim's families stand around and revel in watching the convicted man fry. DEAD MAN WALKING has its share of politics and angry victims, but the victims are fleshed out, given back story, and deliver a deep emotional impact on the film. On the other hand, the death penalty can be handled by as a necessary arm of justice, allowing us all to breathe easy at night knowing that one more killer is off the streets. But DEAD MAN WALKING refuses to take up this line either. Instead, the film becomes a well-balanced exploration of the issues surrounding crime and punishment. In the end, the film evolves into an exploration of the possibility of redemption, quite apart from any issues concerning justice.
Not enough can be said about Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Their performances are simply stunning. Sarandon plays a real nun, rather than the cardboard figure portraits of the clergy I am used to seeing in a film. Her performance breathes and her journey allows the audience to follow her path, providing us with an emotional trajectory. Sean Penn, once again, proves that he is pretty much the best actor working right now. His performance is incredible. As in most of his recent roles, you forget you're watching Penn: the character comes through. In particular, the last twenty minutes of the film are incredibly heart-wrenching. You just have to see the film to understand.
DEAD MAN WALKING is a fine film and one that I don't hesitate to give five stars. I will soon be adding it to my DVD collection. I hope you will be too."
Honest, raw and brutal; an emotionally devastating film that
Andrew Ellington | I'm kind of everywhere | 06/23/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This movie wrecked me.
Seriously, it tore out my heart and stomped on it. `Dead Man Walking' is one of those movies that ravages an individual because it leaves bias at the door and forces you to witness two sides of a devastating story. I feel about this film as I do about `4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days' for both films take a situation that one would have a firm opinion about and causes you to seriously doubt yourself. With `4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days' it was abortion, and while I am wholeheartedly against the act it forced me to understand why some would be for it, and it brought me a to a dark and lonely place I never want to revisit. `Dead Man Walking' is very similar but maybe even with a more savage result. This film takes on the subject of the death penalty and asks us to contemplate whether or not it is humane. Instead of forcing us a preordained answer, `Dead Man Walking' allows the audience to see both sides of the situation and decide for themselves what they think is just and fair.
`Dead Man Walking' took everything I believed in and destroyed it.
When `4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days' was through I was weak emotionally, but I still stood firm to my beliefs on the subject. When I was through with `Dead Man Walking' I had no idea what I believed anymore because I found myself trying to justify each stance on the matter. I still am trying to grapple with my feelings.
`Dead Man Walking' (a slang term used in reference to a death row inmate in route to the death chamber) focuses on Matthew Poncelet, a convicted murderer trying to get his death sentenced exchanged for a life sentence. He writes to Sister Helen Prejean for her help in the process, and when his appeal is denied he asks her to be his spiritual adviser during the week leading up to his execution. She agrees, despite the pressure she has from the community and the victims families to separate herself from this man. The film takes us into the relationship between these two people and slowly and subtly lets us inside their minds. Matthew swears he was nothing more than a witness to the horrific events that placed him on death row yet Sister Prejean is trying to help him take responsibility for his actions so as to gain Christ's forgiveness.
What could have proved itself nothing more than a sappy preachy film about inhumane/humane (depending on your stance) acts of justice becomes so much more thanks to the brilliant performances by the entire cast, the two leads in particular. Susan Sarandon is one of our greatest working actresses, and she always succeeds in impressing me, but this is probably her finest performance (and Oscar agreed). Not only that, but this may very well be one of the finest performances by any actress, ever. As Sister Helen Prejean she truly grabs hold of this woman's soul, her inner demons and her beauty within. She is so raw, so human and real that one can't help but fall into her plight and stand beside her strength. Her final scenes with Penn devastate me and caused me to burst into tears. Those scenes were of course only strengthened by the power that is Sean Penn. As Matthew Poncelet, Penn creates a monster that is so real and so human that we can't help by sympathize with him. It was about half way through the film that it hit me, what Penn was successfully doing. He was creating a man that I could understand. We think about the act and the crime and the horror behind it all and we are quick to hate and cry out for justice, but quite like `A Clockwork Orange', `Dead Man Walking' asks the question if we have the right, as humans, to decide just what that justice should entail.
The final moments of `Dead Man Walking' hit me like a freight train. Coupling the heartbreaking final moments of Poncelet's life with flashbacks of his horrendous crime leaves the viewer in distress and torn between two wide ranges of thinking. This was probably the smartest direction Tim Robbins could have gone for it accomplishes what he set out to do, create a film without bias that addresses both side of the coin. Sure, the harrowing performances by R. Lee Ermey, Celia Weston and Robert Prosky as the parents of Poncelet's victims help give us a perspective into their feelings on the matter, but it is the ending that really twists the knife. By feeding us the initial crime and the inevitable justice at the same time we are flooded with emotions as we cringe at the sight of Poncelet taking innocent lives in such a brutal fashion and then shiver in misery as we watch his life taken from him in what is considered a `humane' fashion. The ending result is one of pain and emotional exhaustion.
I cannot say that I would not want this same form of justice done if anyone hurt my daughter. Most likely I would be campaigning for a more drastic and harsh form of torment to be done that individual. I think that is why this film haunts me so much, because I am a father. As I watch this movie and begin to sympathize with this man I feel guilty because I would never want someone to sympathize with a man that hurt my own daughter. Having said that I wholeheartedly agree with Penn's final devastating words, that killing is wrong no matter who is doing it. This rift in my own feelings may very well be the reason I consider this to be one of the finest films ever made, for it addresses those same contradictions with intelligence and honesty."