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Starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn
Written and Directed by Tim Robbins
The back story: A teen couple drive into the woods late at night for some cuddling. A pair of drunken, high, bums with a gun force them out of the car, brutally rape and then stab the woman. Both teens are executed with a bullet to the back of the head.
Get alone. Get comfy. Get killed. It's the story of almost any Halloween movie, but in this case it is real. Sean Penn plays Poncelot, one of the murderers. He is poor, was assigned an inadequate lawyer, and was sentenced to die. His "partner" got a life sentence. What you see, with the exception of some time compression at the beginning, is the last week in his life.
Dead Man Walking is taken from the book by Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), who answered a letter from the condemned, and agreed to counsel him as his execution approached. Cranky makes no comparison to Source material, so let's deal strictly with what is on screen.
Before Sarandon (as Prejean) makes first contact with Poncelot she is herself counseled by the resident priest at the prison facility. He seems more concerned that she does not wear a nun's habit, than with the fact that she is there to do what she perceives to be Christ's work. She in turn admits that she has no idea what she is getting herself into. Then she meets Poncelot who is, in no uncertain terms, a racist sexist unrepentant pig.
He needs help finding a lawyer to file an appeal for commutation of his Death Sentence to Life. She agrees to help, and when the details of an execution by injection are explained to her, she joins the anti-Death penalty activists. She works to get the sentence commuted.
Then she comes face to face with the families of the slain. Poncelot, in a television interview, goes on and on about how he admires Hitler. Prejean must deal with all this, and it becomes even harder as we realize (with the inevitable drawing ever closer) that she is falling in love with the pig.
I asked a lot of people if they saw it that way. Yes. Even Sarandon, the actress, has spoken about it that way. Love. You see it for yourself. You decide.
Prejean's instructions (given by the priest, up top) were to help Poncelot acknowledge and confess his sins, so that he could face judgment in Heaven. It is in the second half of the film that Penn's performance comes alive. His facade cracks and crumbles as the time of execution draws near. We learn the truth as tough talking felon becomes scared little kid, about to get the wood-shedding of his life.
I am not a Catholic. If I'm a bit off the mark theology-wise, well, I hope this is pretty close to what it is. For, by the end, the metaphors are flying fast and furious. Is it my misunderstanding, or did Christ die for our sins, not his sins? You'll understand my question when, in the final moments of his life, Poncelot is raised Crucifixion-like on his table to make final confession. For me, an incredibly mixed metaphor.
There is no question (at least for me) that this bastard deserves it. Tim Robbins set out to make a film that will put doubts into your mind about the fairness of the Death Penalty, to turn you against the process. But there is no doubt of Poncelot's guilt, as you will see as the film plays out.
Is Dead Man Walking . . .
Dead Man Walking runs the gamut from heavy handed anti-death penalty preacher of a movie, to a finely acted, detailed portrait of a murderer and his nun. It is not a "bad" movie. It is not a "good" movie, in the traditional sense. It should be seen for Sarandon and Penn's acting, and if you do see it, please do so in a theatre. There is an emotional tension present that you cannot get if you watch the thing on a television. What struck me about Dead Man Walking was that (my) audience was filled with parents and their children (mostly 10 and up). The children did not squirm, or cry out, or talk. It is a transfixing event.
But I paid for it once, and now I never want to see it again.
For the first time since I've been rating movies based on ticket price, I have absolutely no idea where to place this one. So maybe Tim Robbins did succeed in some minor way with me. I was not upset or shocked, but I did walk out of the theater emotionally stunned ("drained" is how some people were referring to it).
If you can put a dollar amount on it, please do.
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