Dead Man Walking is a 1995 American drama film directed by Tim Robbins, who adapted the screenplay from the non-fiction book of the same name. It tells the story of Sister Helen Prejean (played by Susan Sarandon), who establishes a special relationship with Matthew Poncelet (played by Sean Penn), a prisoner on death row in Louisiana. Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) has been in prison six years, awaiting his execution by lethal injection for killing a teenage couple. Poncelet, located in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, committed the crimes with a man named Carl Vitello (Michael Cullen), who received life imprisonment. As the day of his execution comes closer and closer, Poncelet asks Sister Helen to help him with a final appeal. She decides to visit him, and he comes across as arrogant, sexist, and racist, not even pretending to feel any kind of remorse. Instead he affirms his innocence, insisting it was Vitello who killed the two teenagers. Convincing an experienced attorney to take on Poncelet's case pro bono, Sister Helen tries to obtain life imprisonment for Poncelet. Over time, after many visits, she establishes a special relationship with him.
A progressive nun living in the confines of rural Louisiana, and a racist convicted murderer, waiting on death row. The cast of next year’s hottest new sitcom? No! They’re the leads of Dead Man Walking, a somber ‘inspired by true events’ docudrama wherein the nun, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), becomes the spiritual guide and confidant of the criminal, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn).
Poncelet (a hybridized, fictional character), along with a friend, raped and murdered a teenage girl along with her boyfriend back in 1988. Poncelet was convicted and sentenced to death. His execution rapidly approaching, Poncelet struck out to find anyone who could help him file his appeals and requests for pardon hearings. Enter Helen Prejean and the beginning of Dead Man Walking.
As Helen helps Poncelet through the legal circus, she tries to get him to confess his sins and admit his guilt. Poncelet forcefully refuses, and Helen quickly finds herself as hated by the public as Poncelet is. Interacting with the slain teens’ families takes her into their world, filled with remorse and seething with anger. And all the while, Poncelet’s execution looms closer and closer.
Tim Robbins wrote and directed Dead Man Walking, based on Helen’s own book of the same name. While the film is flawed (it starts off slow, it’s talky and repetitive, and Robbins really isn’t much of a director), it really starts to grow on you as the relationship between Helen and Poncelet becomes curiouser and curiouser. At first, Poncelet appears to be nothing more than a common hood, who isn’t worth saving at all and who evokes no sympathy. But Helen takes this man and crafts him into something that, while not quite ‘good,’ is genuinely remorseful and, maybe, worthy of redemption . By the end of the picture, the movie comes together quite nicely.
Sarandon and Penn are to be commended for their fine performances, but the story itself is the real star, showing us the harrowing reality of the execution process and the raw anger that it creates. It probably isn’t for everyone, but Dead Man Walking is a tale that needs to be heard and that will likely provide material for hours of philosophical debate.
And what’s more fitting for the holidays than a good execution movie, anyway?