Dead Man WalkingUnder Construction

Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking is in a class by itsefl among films dealing with the death penalty.  Several things set it apart.  First, it does not deal with how the death penalty goes wrong--faked evidence, prosecuratorial misconduct, racial bias, brutalizing guards, botched executions, innocent men sent to their deaths..  All of these are important, but are not the focus of Robbins' movie.  Second, it is a film about families and crime--the impact of the murders of the parents of the victims, the impact of the impending execution on the muderer's family, the complex relatonship between Sr. Helen and her parents and other family members as she becomes more involved in the case, and the implact of the family of children in the poor area in which Sr. Helen ministers.  Third, Matthew Poncelet (played by Sean Penn) "is not a nice boy," in the words of the prosecutor.  He committed the crime, and ther crime was horrible. There were no extenuating circumstances.  He is not remorseful for what he did, and even taunts the parents of his victims as he is led off to prison.  Fourth, this is not a simple movie against the death penalty, but rather a movie about the death penalty.  Certainly Sr. Prejean's book (and life's work) is focused on opposition to the death penalty, but this film is more complex and nuanced than that.  It is a film about a horrific crime that rends the social fabric and about one of the ways in whicn we attmpted to come to terms with such evil.  Poncelet seems to achieve some kind of redemption in the end through the ministry of Sister Helen, but ironically he probably would not have ever reached that point without her intervention and without the prospect of his immanent execution.  Finally, it is worth noting that it is a film about families--about the families of the two high school students who were killed, about the murderer and his family, about Sr. Prejean and her parents and other family members who question her participation in the case, and about the family of children and parents Sr. Helen creates in the housing projects where she ministers to the residents. 

Often, the price of one thing is bought at the cost of another--privacy vs. security, health vs. enjoyment.  What makes Dead Man Walking so distinctive is that Robbins does not denyone thing to affirm another.  He presents both the horror of the crime and its devastating impact and, at the same time, the redemptive power of Sr. Helen's ministry and Poncelet's eventual realizaation of his own guilt and responsibility.  With an extraordinarily deft hand, Robbins traces the spiritual journeys of the main characters, and even some of the minor ones *such as the guards and the nurse).  The film ends, appropriately enough, with Sr. helen saying to the father of the murdered boy, Delacroes, " Maybe....we could help each other find a way out of the hate."  He replies: "l don't know.  I don't think so."  The viewer is left to ask the same question about hwo we find a way out of the hate.