Dead Man Walking, directed by Tim Robbins, is a superb film, presenting most of the aspects regarding capital punishment. According to my opinion the unique thing about this drama film, released in 1996, is its ability to make people reflect upon and even question their former thoughts concerning death penalty. Various points of view are presented, but the film doesn’t force any conviction upon its audience. With only one exception, which I will get back to later in this account, Dead Man Walking manages to remain objective even when we approach the painful end.
The film is based on Sister Helen Prejean`s book about her experiences with inmates on death row. Sister Helen, masterly interpreted by Susan Sarandon, is the narrator of the film. She receives a letter from Prisoner Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn). Due to a horrible murder to which he claims only to have been an observer, he is now on death row, waiting for his execution. He requests her to come visiting him. In the next couple of days we follow Sister Helens conversations with Matthew, his family and the families of the two teenagers brutally raped and killed.
In spite of the fact that Helen meats a lot of anger and sorrow for her being so involved with Matthew she keeps on fighting for his life. But the appeal gets rejected and the execution gets closer. As one could predict Matthew Poncelet suffers the death penalty.
Tim Robbins is a well-known left wing oriented director, but the film itself is as mentioned earlier, neutral regarding the controversial capital punishment. The only thing Robbins insists on is that there are no wealthy killers on death row, that the American court system isn’t really all that fair. This statement, as opposed to the death penalty issue (where we meet both pro and anti capital punishment arguments) is never questioned or denied by any of the characters.
There is one statement in the film that I believe summarises the theme, what the director wants to tell us, very well. A lawyer observes: “it is easy to kill a monster, but hard killing a human being.”
Another thing that may be one of Robbins intentions making this film is to bring more knowledge about the complex death penalty to the public. While the rest of the Western world has abolished this, in my opinion, old-fashioned punishment, it has become an asset to US politicians in order to gain trust from the American voters.
The Narrator, Sister Helen, and the condemned Poncelet are definitely the main characters of this film. Even though few people could identify themselves with Poncelet, his grief and despair occurs before and during the injection and reminds us that less than few are totally in lack of emotions. Sister Helen is a Nun who spends much of her time doing charity in her poor neighbourhood. She is having a hard time not letting her hate to Poncelet`s Actions dominate their spiritual relationship, but manages to remember the Christian message: “Every man is worth more than his worst actions.” The conversations between Helen and Matthew are, according to my opinion, the most powerful in the film. They are intense and moving. The soundtrack of “Dead Man Walking” has its own interesting story and I have decided to give it attention due to the significance of the music in the film.
Robbins engaged some of his favourite songwriters by sending them parts of the film asking them to let the material lead them where it might. All of the songs on the soundtrack tells a story, and is performed by great vocalists like Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash. An ignorarant person like myself might be tempted to call the album a little country inspired and I might even be right, but the music in the album doesn’t follow one path. Johnny Cash delivers a gospel inspired song and others perform stunning solo duets. The music creates a melancholy atmosphere and suits the film very well.
Robbins doesn’t use advanced technical devices to improve the experience of the film, he uses more symbolic and less obvious tools. The huge contrast between sister Helen and Matthew is a good example. Poncelet represents evil itself, prejudice and violent. Sister Helen is his saviour. She makes him confess and represents Christianity, the opposite of evil in the eyes of most people. One really interesting scene in the film is when Poncelet is lying on a bench waiting for the lethal injection. He is being pushed up in a position that resembles the crucifix. Jesus died for Humanity; Poncelet dies to ease the sorrow for the grieving parents.
In the first paragraph of this account I have written my personal meaning of the film. Concerning my personal view on Capital punishment I think Sister Helens statement verbalizes it better than I will be able to do: “I don’t see the sense of killing a man to prove killing is wrong.”