It is a measure of their accomplishment that we also leave in a state of thoroughly grim but provocative confusion.
"Dead Man Walking" belongs to Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, and writer/director/coproducer Tim Robbins. An excellent cast supports them in the best of nonflamboyant ways, creating a canvas so devoid of posturing that the film offers the audience a rare chance to consider capital punishment without polemic.
Tim Robbins has drawn performances of masterful restraint from Penn and Sarandon while time and again resisting any temptation to turn his subject into melodrama. Nothing could be more appropriate for an inherently dramatic and tragic subject. The terrible tensions withheld by the players in this drama scream all the more loudly in suppression.
The premise: the cruel, grisly, murder/rape of a pair of young lovers and the subsequent arrest and execution of one of the men who did it. Robbins lets the crime unfold in startling staccato flashbacks to remind us--whatever our sentiments are at a given moment--of the casual, calculated, prolonged brutality of the act.
With just a few strokes, the director sketches the character of Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) who works at Hope House in the housing projects of New Orleans. When she is asked why she lives among the poor, she answers simply, "I live where I work." >From a middle-class background of plenty, she lives now entirely for others without a trace of sacrifice or self-congratulation.
Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), the convicted murderer, lives on death row. With an ugly bravado spawned in a background of rural Louisiana poverty, he lives now in waiting for the final lethal injection. Against the advice of the prison chaplain, Sister Helen agrees to be Poncelet's spiritual advisor, visiting him in prison and walking beside him to his death.
Susan Sarandon' luminous eyes betray her vulnerability, but she never once weakens her portrayal with even the slightest hint that she might be taken in by Poncelet's insistence on his innocence. She knows her man. Penn doesn't lighten his murderer with even an iota of a redemptive side. His tight control of the coiled spring inside the ugly youth with the spray-painted pompadour causes us to resist any temptation to think of him as a victim of anything. They are clearly who they are, and she will stand not by him, but beside him.
Sister Helen is torn from her initial quiet certainty by the anger and desolation of the victims' parents. Their pain deepens her anguish, but never diminishes her belief that no one has a right to kill. The stark, deep grief of the parents carries immense power. We have been given all sides.
Does the worst of crimes mandate like punishment? What is the nature of vengeance, of retribution, of redemption? Does confession redeem a murderer? Robbins and his actors have balanced the scales so evenly that we leave the theater whipsawed rightly by our own emotions, not theirs. It is a measure of their accomplishment that we also leave in a state of thoroughly grim but provocative confusion.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 497
Studio : Polygram
Rating : R
Running Time: 2h
Copyright (c) Illusion
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