'Last Dance' Follows Other Capital Punishment Movies Some May Call It 'Dead Woman Walking,' but Its Message Is Earnest

By David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

'Last Dance' Follows Other Capital Punishment Movies Some May Call It 'Dead Woman Walking,' but Its Message Is Earnest


David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


It's too new to be called a trend, but it's too revealing to be written off as mere coincidence. Hollywood movies are taking a look at capital punishment, indicating that a subject too incendiary for many politicians to explore - beyond rote sermons on the issue, usually advocating death as a panacea for serious crime - is finding a measure of investigation and analysis through the lens of popular culture.

Such analysis is rarely profound, but it shows that more people are thinking more deeply about this troubling matter than many news reports and stump speeches would suggest.

Exhibit A is "Dead Man Walking," which earned an Academy Award for Susan Sarandon's portrayal of a Roman Catholic nun who befriends a condemned killer in the months before his execution. Exhibit B is the very different "Eye for an Eye," with Sally Field as a vengeful mom who terminates her daughter's killer after a lenient criminal-justice system lets her down. Also relevant is "Aileen Wournos: The Selling of a Serial Killer," a bone-chilling documentary about self-serving interests surrounding a tragic death-row case not long ago.

The newest entry on the list is "Last Dance," a movie so similar to "Dead Man Walking" that a simple title change - "Dead Woman Walking" - would summarize much of the plot.

Sharon Stone plays Cindy Liggett, sentenced to death for murdering two teenagers during a drug-dazed burst of violence. The stranger who takes an interest in her case is a minor functionary from the state government, assigned to petition on her behalf for a commuted sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole. To his surprise, Liggett isn't interested in seeking the governor's mercy. All she has left is the mere fact of being alive, and she intends to dispose of this on her own terms - not those of a judicial system that cares more about policy and procedure than redemption and regeneration.

The young bureaucrat has faced difficulties of his own, however: drug abuse, alcohol problems, a sense of guilt over wasting the advantages he inherited from his privileged family. Despite the huge differences in their backgrounds and personalities, he finds Liggett's situation too compelling to ignore.

Becoming her advocate and companion, he sets about obtaining a commutation regardless of her wishes. But fierce obstacles await him, including the fact that the governor is facing a reelection battle and needs the "tough on crime" image Liggett's execution would conveniently provide.

To be convincing in its arguments, a drama about capital punishment needs to acknowledge more than one side of this highly charged issue.

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'Last Dance' Follows Other Capital Punishment Movies Some May Call It 'Dead Woman Walking,' but Its Message Is Earnest
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