Sister Helen Prejean is a nun from Louisiana who is firmly against capital punishment. She wrote a book on the subject entitled Dead Man Walking and it is an autobiographical account of Prejean’s experience as a spiritual advisor to a convicted felon awaiting his execution. A movie based on the book was released in 1995 starring Susan Sarandon as Prejean and Sean Penn as the dead man walking, Matthew Poncelet.
Poncelet has been in prison for six years for apparently raping a girl and killing her boyfriend. He is soon about to be executed. Fearing the unknown and desperate to redeem himself, he writes a letter to Prejean in hopes that she will help him with one last appeal. The two meet at the prison and they have a rocky start. Poncelet is rude and bitter adding strain to their newly formed relationship whereas Prejean demands respect and common courtesy. However, as the two meet more and more and converse, they learn things about one another and form a rather pleasant bond.
In the film, Prejean is determined to work with Poncelet so that he has a chance to fight for his life. She also wants to save his soul so that if he is to be executed, he will meet his maker with some form of dignity. The parents of the victims however feel Poncelet should die like a dog, an appropriate punishment they feel, for taking their children away from them.
Dead Man Walking is a sobering look at crime, the death penalty and those who are affected by it. Prejean is a strong advocate of abolishing the death penalty. She feels that all people, no matter what they’ve done deserve to live and not have their lives cut short by the government. Prejean is a humanitarian who sees the good in people. No matter how bad their actions are, she believes that God forgives everyone.
Susan Sarandon won the Best Actress in a Leading Role Academy Award in 1996 for her honest and sympathetic portrayal of Prejean. Her performance in the film is exquisite and three-dimensional. She is tender yet at the same time rather tough. Sean Penn also gives a terrific performance as Poncelet, the man struggling to make peace with God and probably more importantly, himself. Penn was nominated for an Oscar as well for his truly authentic character portrayal however he lost to Nicolas Cage’s binge-drinking character role in Leaving Las Vegas.
Writer/director and former partner of Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins has painted a very bleak picture here however there are moments of positive vivid color most notably in the script and of course through the actors’ performances. Throughout the ‘90s, there were many mediocre films, mediocre but with extraordinary performances. Dead Man Walking is not a perfect film by any means but the acting in it is downright superb. Penn is intense and very believable as Poncelet and the always reliable Sarandon is wonderful as Prejean as well. Their chemistry is great. There is tension in some of the early scenes they’re in but fortunately that only makes them that much better.
Hollywood doesn’t make movies like this anymore. Dead Man Walking is a character study. It is about troubled individuals who are searching for peace in a chaotic world. Prejean needs Poncelet just as much as he needs her. They have a mutual relationship in which they are both trying to make peace with themselves and their quest to find redemption is quite beautiful. The two characters form an almost mother/son-like bond and it is marvelous to watch not to mention, downright moving. Dead Man Walking is now out on Blu-ray and if you are interested in seeing some powerful acting coupled with good direction and highlighting very serious issues, then this is the movie for you.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The bonus features for Dead Man Walking are okay. There is a feature-length audio commentary by Tim Robbins and there is a trailer for the film.