Dead Man Walking
1995 Gramercy Pictures / Polygram Filmed Entertainment
Written and Directed by Tim Robbins. Starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.
Dead Man Walking is as fine a piece of filmmaking as anyone can ask for, with excellent performances all around (Sarandon won a Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Helen Prejean). The death penalty is not a simple issue, since it taps into some of our rawest emotions; it is one thing to sit in a classroom and debate, or form an "ethic" based upon reading a book, and quite another to face the person that raped and killed your daughter or son, mother or father, brother or sister. This film is complicated enough to wrestle with that issue and come out as a shining example of the level of thought that can go into one production.
Dead Man Walking is a rare gem of a movie. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, three-time Nobel Prize nominee and noted death penalty activist, the movie follows Sister Helen's spiritual, philosophical, and emotional journey as she acts as a spiritual advisor to a prisoner on Louisiana's Death Row.
The film opens with Prejean accepting the position, not knowing what to expect, and continues with her harrowing personal journey as she meets the prisoner she has been corresponding with, the families of the prisoner's victims, and the lawmen involved both in his arrest and his incarceration.
Dead Man Walking isn't simple bleeding-heart propaganda, and truly shines because the film - like Prejean's wonderful book - refuses to take the easy way out. Writer/director Tim Robbins' script gives equal time to both sides of this divisive issue, and avoids compacting tense emotions into sound bites and bumper-sticker philosophy, which is what happens all too frequently in movies that pretend to be "deep" and "meaningful."
Deciding where one stands on any philosophical and ethical issue is never an easy decision, and Dead Man Walking takes that path of discovery and truly gives it its fair due. The film leaves the viewer with more questions than answers, but does take a rather anti-capital punishment stance towards the end, as the main character begins to form her opinions.
People expecting easy answers, propaganda, or reaffirmation of their point of view shouldn't watch. Those who are interested in a layered piece of human experience universalized, Dead Man Walking is highly recommended.--Jason Mical, Drury Class of 2001