Following his 1992 feature debut, the impressive but slight political satire “Bob Roberts,” Tim Robbins makes a quantum leap forward as writer and director of “Dead Man Walking,” a highly intriguing drama about the complex relationship between a devout nun and a death row convict. An intimate chamber piece for two, superbly acted by Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, this mature, well-crafted movie should appeal to serious filmgoers. Gramercy, however, faces a tough marketing challenge with a demanding film that is not typical holiday-season entertainment , though its humanistic messages of redemption and forgiveness are very much in sync with the spirit of Christmas.
“Walking” is strong in every department: narrative structure, visual style, bold sensibility, dense texture and rich characterization. Inspired by true events and figures in Sister Helen Prejean’s bestselling 1993 book, pic defies the conventions of both Hollywood crime melodramas and TV movies.
Set in St. Thomas Housing Project and Angola Prison in New Orleans, tale begins with a correspondence between Sister Helen Prejean (Sarandon), a pious but down-to-earth nun who lives among her poor constituency, and Matthew Poncelet (Penn), a convicted killer awaiting execution.
Honoring a request from the desperate convict, Sister Helen visits Poncelet in jail and agrees to become his spiritual adviser in his last days — an act never before attempted by a woman.
With these parameters established — and the countdown under way — a perplexing bond evolves between the courageous nun, who’s deeply disturbed by Poncelet’s anguish, and the criminal, who refuses to deal with his offense, the brutal murder of two innocent sweethearts.
During the crucial week that frames the film, the duo undergo emotional journeys that are parallel and complementary. Fighting for Poncelet’s life and soul, Sister Helen must overcome her own fears. And the hardened Poncelet’s path is even more rugged; he not only has to conquer his fear of death, but must come to grips with his actions and ask for forgiveness.
It’s a measure of Robbins’ intelligent treatment of the tough material that though the narrative unfolds in face-to-face interactions, Sister Helen and Poncelet are not isolated from their surroundings. One of the nun’s challenges is to confront the rage of the victims’ families, who seek retribution for their unbearable loss.
There’s a riveting scene in which Sister Helen visits the murdered girl’s parents (R. Lee Ermey and Celia Weston), attentively listening to their words of anguish. The couple at first assume that she’s on their side, but when they realize she’s just trying to be fair to all parties involved, they show her the door.
The scene illuminates the balanced, uncompromising approach Robbins brings to the film; he refuses to prejudge any of the characters, giving each a fair chance to present their case with dignity and respect.
Robbins’ greatest achievement is in shaping an open-ended film, without romanticizing the killer. This is decidedly not the story of a wrongly accused murderer — or of a misrepresented criminal with a heart. Though we see events through Sister Helen’s probing eyes, pic presents multiple perspectives, an unusual strategy that gives the audience a measure of freedom in interpreting the conflicted emotions that beset the characters.
Robbins shrewdly inserts flashbacks of the rapes and murders with increasing frequency in the last reel — there’s genuine suspense as to which specific crimes Poncelet committed the night he and his macho buddy (who got life imprisonment because he was represented by a better lawyer) were out partying in the woods, both heavily drugged.
Considering the stasis of the central situation, with the nun and convict separated by a transparent partition, the film is fast-moving and absorbing. Ace lenser RogerDeakins gives the story a realistic, unadorned look, which relies on tight close-ups of Sarandon and Penn’s forceful faces.
For this kind of drama to be effective, it requires distinguished, subtle acting. Sarandon and Penn perfectly fill the bill. Sans makeup, Sarandon inhabits the nun’s role with powerful conviction, expressing the character’s valor and vulnerability. Penn’s tough yet intricate Poncelet complements Sarandon superbly.
First-rate supporting ensemble includes actors who each register strongly, with special kudos to Robert Prosky as a liberal lawyer, Ermey and Weston as the parents, Lois Smith as Sister Helen’s mother and Roberta Maxwell as Poncelet’s distressed mom.
With meticulous attention to the technical aspects of capital punishment, “Walking” surpasses the 1958 “I Want to Live!” (and other efforts) in its authentic yet chilling portrayal of what it means to take a human life and should help renew debate on capital punishment.