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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Dead Man Walking (1995)



Of monsters, murder and divine mercy...

"Sister, I won't ask for forgiveness; my sins are all I have," sings Bruce Springsteen in this movie's title song while the end credits roll over the screen - giving voice once more to Matthew Poncelet and the men portrayed in Sister Helen Prejean's nonfiction account on which this movie is based; that angry "white trash," those men who are "God's mistake," as one victim's father says, inconsolable over the loss of his daughter; those men locked up in high security prisons for unspeakable crimes which many of them claim they didn't commit. And Matt Poncelet (Sean Penn) is just such a guy; locked in bravado and denial, he proclaims his innocence and would rather take a lie detector test on the day of his execution "so my momma knows I didn't do this" than own up to his responsibility.

With Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), we first learn about the crime which landed Poncelet on death row - the rape-murder of a couple on lovers' lane - from the account she receives when she starts writing to him and eventually agrees to visit him in prison. It is, as she will soon learn, a story that anti-death penalty advocates are all too familiar with; a story of unequal access to lawyers and of two defendants, each blaming all guilt for their crime exclusively on the other, regardless what truly happened. And as long as she is assured that even if Poncelet would have a new trial he wouldn't go free (as an accomplice, under Louisiana state law he would receive a lifetime prison sentence), Sister Helen is willing to help him find a lawyer and, when the date for his execution is set, try to obtain a reprieve.

But it does not end there, as she soon finds out; and one of this movie's greatest strengths is the way in which it portrays all sides of the moral issues involved in the death penalty. There are the victims' families, a stunning 70% of which break up after the murder of a child, and who are forever stuck with the unloving last words spoken to their loved ones and the memory of all the little homely details reminding them of their loss. There are the prison guards and nurses, trying to see executions as "part of their job" - with varying success. There are the politicians, barking slogans on TV; promising to "get tough on sentencing, get tough on lenient parole boards, get tough on judges who pass light sentences." There are the convicts' families, marginalized as a result of their brothers' and sons' acts, particularly if they refuse to condemn them publicly. ("Now I'm famous," Poncelet's mother comments bitterly on the dubious celebrity status she has attained as a result of a TV show about Matt. "A regular Ma Barker!") And there is the death penalty itself, shown in all its chilling, graphic, clinical detail, here in its allegedly most humane form: lethal injections, which tranquilize the muscles while the poison reaches the convict's lungs and heart - "his face goes to sleep while his inside organs are going through Armageddon," Poncelet's attorney says at his pardon board hearing. "It was important to us to show all sides of the issue," explains director Tim Robbins on the DVD's commentary track, "not to be satisfied with soundbites, and to present the reality ... Ultimately, the question is not who deserves to die, but who has the right to kill."


At the heart of the story are two radically different individuals: Sister Helen, who has grown up in an affluent, loving family; and Matthew Poncelet, the convicted killer. And their portrayal is this movie's other great strength: without either of them, this film would not have been half as compelling. Both Sarandon and Penn deliver Academy Award-worthy performances. (Sarandon did win her long overdue Oscar, Penn lost to Nicolas Cage for "Leaving Las Vegas" - this would have been an occasion where I would have favored a split award.) Gradually, very gradually we see them get to know each other; and as they do, the visual layers separating them in the prison visiting room are peeled away. Yet, even after he has learned to accept Sister Helen as a human being (not without attempting to come on to her as if she were not a nun - director Tim Robbins's way of dispelling the notion that they might fall in love, as is so often the case in the more cliched versions of this type of story), Poncelet insists that his participation was limited to holding one of the victims down, but that it was his accomplice who raped and killed them both. And even days before his execution, he is still looking for "loopholes" in the bible, as Sister Helen admonishes him, seeing redemption as a free ticket into heaven instead of a means of owning up to his responsibility. ("I like that," he comments when she quotes Jesus's "the truth shall make you free." "So I pass that lie detector test, I'm home free.") Only in his final hour, he slowly, gradually gives up the protective layers of his bravado and lays bare his raw nerve and innermost anguish. And while he speaks, finally, in a complete flashback, we, the viewers, see what really happened that dark and lonely night in the woods, and what all the previous partial flashbacks have not revealed.

"It is easy to kill a monster, but hard to kill a human being," Poncelet's attorney once explains; and Tim Robbins echoes that sentiment on the commentary track. Yet, this movie is not about romanticizing a brutal killer, any more than it is about demonizing his victims. It is, first and foremost, an attempt to bring a complete perspective to one of contemporary America's most pressing problems, and to find a way past sorrow and hate and move towards the future. And even if you're still for the death penalty after having watched it - don't claim ignorance as to what is involved. By Themis-Athena

Torrent: here
All subs: here

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