Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 26, 2011)
Along with abortion, capital punishment has always been one of those “hot button” issues on which the two sides will not – and cannot – ever agree. They’re really all or nothing: either you support the death penalty or you don’t.
For a film that clearly takes the anti-death penalty approach, we go to 1995’s Dead Man Walking. Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) begins a correspondence with Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), a death row inmate. Convicted of murder and rape, Matthew claims he didn’t kill anyone and asks Sister Helen to help him appeal before he receives a lethal injection. The film follows their relationship as Sister Helen grows closer to Poncelet and we learn more about his case and past – as well as her own history.
If you look up “bleeding heart liberal” in the dictionary, you’re certain to find pictures of Sarandon, Penn and/or director Tim Robbins. Other contributors like musicians Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen fall pretty close to that particular tree as well, so you might expect Walking to provide a shrill anti-death penalty screed with less subtlety than a Michael Moore movie.
You’d expect wrong – very wrong, in fact. I do feel that Walking leans in the direction of the argument against capital punishment, but I don’t think it does so in a way so strong that it comes across as truly biased. For me, only one sequence seems notably slanted: the one in which we see the scene outside the prison when another inmate gets executed. While the pro-death penalty crowd whoops, hollers and acts like they’re at a pep rally, the anti-capital punishment folks offer the model of civility and spiritual security.
That’s it – that’s the only part of the movie that seems biased to me, and even that’s a minor sequence. The rest of the film comes across as pretty even-handed, though again, it does lean toward the anti-death penalty crowd. Given that it’s based on the story of the real Sister Helen, this is inevitable; it tells her first-person tale, so we’re going to more closely identify with her feelings.
And those sequences will dominate, but they don’t exist in a vacuum. Walking makes sure it features the other side of the coin and ensures that we view the pain and suffering of the victims as well as their families. Indeed, when the flick could wallow solely in pathos, it intercuts shots of Matthew’s execution with shots of his crime. Rather than stay with the drama of his demise, it reminds us what brought him to that point.
This balance helps keep Walking involving, and I also appreciate the subdued manner in which Robbins tales the story. Although we meet characters with inflamed passions, the movie doesn’t fly off the handle along with them. I wouldn’t call it cold and clinical, but it maintains an even keel that suits it. Robbins easily could’ve embraced simple melodrama, but he ensures that the film remains dignified, a factor that helps accentuate debate; without attempts to actively sway our viewpoint, the movie opens itself up for discussion.
Though I do expect that Walking did more for the anti-death penalty side, as it offers a human face behind an execution. Not a particularly sympathetic face, though, which is actually part of what makes the movie effective. Walking presents a pretty reprehensible guy: Poncelet is a racist who clearly is a low-life in many ways. Even though the flick leaves his true involvement in the crime a mystery until close to its finale, we still know that Poncelet is a bad person; whatever his specific sins may be, they’re obviously multiple.
Penn offers a sublime performance as Poncelet. He doesn’t try to make the character likable or sympathetic, but he also avoids easy “villain” traits. He provides a complex turn that lets us view Poncelet as a person instead of just the sum of his crimes.
Sarandon won an Oscar for her work, and I think she deserved it, as she gets a difficult role. Sister Helen essentially acts as the viewer’s surrogate. She’s not quite a blank slate, but she’s in unfamiliar territory here, and she must develop her opinions as she goes. We see the film through her eyes, and like Penn, she doesn’t mail in easy emotions. Instead, Sarandon doesn’t take strong sides; Sister Helen hates the sin but grows to love the sinner, and Sarandon ably demonstrates that balancing act.
All of these factors help make Walking a classy, thought-provoking drama. It avoids many simple pitfalls and manages to deliver about as even-handed a take on the death penalty as I can imagine. And an emotional one as well.