Magazine article Anglican Journal
Dead Man Walking
Dead Man Walking
Starring Sean Penn and Susan
**** (out of five)
Tim Robbins has directed what could well be one of the finest and most powerful films of the season. Dead Man Walking, with screenplay adapted from Sister Helen Prejeans' 1993 book of the same name, tells the fictional (but compositely drawn) story of Matthew Poncelot (Sean Penn), a convicted criminal on death row in Louisiana.
He corresponds with Sister Helen (Susan Sarandon) and she responds from her work in a lower income community centre in a predominantly black section of New Orleans. When she finally meets Matthew in prison, and learns of his conviction for rape and two brutal murders, she discovers him to be a racist, southern macho young man.
Matthew knows that she comes from a wealthy family. When he tells her that he cannot understand why she left affluence to live in a dangerous neighbourhood, she counters with, "We have something in common. We both live with the poor."
Class divisions play a large part in this movie's narrative. In Louisiana there are no rich people on death row, and the issue the film raises isn't whether criminals should be punished for their crimes, it is whether they should be killed for them.
The closing footage of Matthew's death by lethal injection is juxtaposed against the murders of the two young people, contrasting the legalized efficiency of the lethal injection with the wild passion of the murders.
Both are monstrous; neither seems justifiable.
But this is far from a piece of anti-capital punishment polemic. This is a richly textured work, revealing the broken lives of the victims' families, and Sister Helen's ministry to them. It is very difficult to watch the brutal rape and murder scenes.
Indeed, the whole film holds up moral complexities and packs an emotional charge, making for a very tense viewing experience. In the end, it is only the character of Sister Helen that holds the people in this film in the only sort of togetherness that they will know - while watching Poncelot die.
What will be most affecting for Christian viewers of this film is the absolute integrity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is presented by Sister Helen. …