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No. 15: “Dead Man Walking” (1995)

“It’s not faith, it’s work.”
~~Sister Helen Prejean

Humanity exists in everyone. Men are not worse than their worst deeds. Talk about ideas that are easy to preach but hard to practice, particularly on death row. The miracle of Tim Robbins’ immensely powerful “Dead Man Walking” is that every character struggles with these concepts, and many do not swallow them as gospel truths. Here is one of the few — and possibly the most poignant and intelligent — examinations of the death penalty that leaves no scar left unseen, no voice left unheard.

The first voice belongs to that of Sister Helen Prejean (a wonderfully understated Susan Sarandon), who receives a letter from New Orleans death row inmate Matthew Poncelot (Sean Penn) and decides to visit him. There are no thoughts of shining up his dirty soul — she goes, she tells the priest, because “he wrote to me.” She enters the prison unprepared by what she finds: an oily, conceited racist whose manicured goatee give him an undeniable air of evil. But Poncelot gets a surprise of his own: Sister Helen is no Bible-thumper interested in adding another saved soul to her belt. Her motives are genuine; she asks questions and listens to his answers. She treats Poncelot, accused of murdering a teen couple and raping the girl, with respect because he is a person. For her, that’s reason enough, and so it becomes reason enough for us to care.

Soon, more voices chime in. Sister Helen’s tentative friendship with Poncelot opens a floodgate of complications. Poncelot draws her into his case, urging her to help him turn his death sentence into life in prison, and she agrees partly because she’s in too deep to pull back. (Credit Robbins with writing Helen this way and Sarandon with making her confusion palpable; rarely do we see religious figures this openly conflicted.) Poncelot, however, doesn’t make things easy — he tells Sister Helen what she wants to hear, then lapses into crazed, bigoted rants and aligns himself with neo-Nazis on TV. But there is real pain and fear beneath all that bravado*. She must face the wrath of the murdered girl’s parents (R. Lee Ermey, Celia Weston) and the quiet disappointment of the dead boy’s father (a subtle, devastating Raymond J. Barry). Angry, too, are the nuns in her order, who berate her for helping a lost cause like Poncelot instead of working with the disadvantaged children who need her more.

The volume of issues Robbins tackles in his adaptation of the real Sister Helen’s memoir is staggering. Robbins examines everything: faith, fear, revenge, pain, absolution, guilt, redemption. He does so with remarkable patience; he refuses to muscle his characters into acting as puppets meant to advance the plot. Not once does he attempt to force-feed us empty cliches and platitudes about the death penalty. Robbins is too subtle; rather, he elects to let this story develop naturally, allowing the unpredictability of human nature to dictate outcomes.  Consider, for example, Sister Helen’s meeting with the murdered girl’s parents, who believe she’s come to side with them. Their anger is blistering, and it pushes Sister Helen to question her own judgments about what Poncelot has done.

Robbins’ beautifully balanced script is elevated immensely by his actors. Talent doesn’t get much deeper or richer than Sarandon and Penn, two actors who tend to inhabit their characters completely. Saddled with the unenviable task of portraying a nun, Sarandon subverts our expectations; her Sister Helen is not a saint but a flawed woman who know she’s in over her head but won’t give up. She tells Poncelot he’s “a son of God” and honestly believes this to be true. Her directness is unexpectedly moving. Penn offers a fine counterpoint, for Poncelot covers the reality about his involvement with the murders with swagger and lines he’s pulled from Nazi propaganda pamphlets. But watch Penn’s eyes — they dam up rivers of emotions that threaten to overflow any second. When he finally tells Sister Helen “thank you for loving me,” it’s a moment of honesty so hard-won it feels wholly real. And in the end, that’s exactly where “Dead Man Walking” gets it right: It shows not one side but all of them. Every face we see haunts us immeasurably.

*Nowhere is this more evident than in Bruce Springsteen’s “Dead Man Walkin’,” a haunting song he penned specifically for the film’s soundtrack.