“I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing. I'll be the face of love for you.”
Dead Man Walking is a film that explores the unique and unexpected bond formed between a Catholic nun and a convicted murderer on Death Row. I know this doesn’t exactly sound as a compelling plot nor a crowd pleaser, but it was definitely a thought provoking film and surprisingly one of the best movies of 1995 thanks to the strong performances. Tim Robbins adapted the screenplay from Sister Helen Prejean’s nonfictional book of the same name, and he also directed this inspirational spiritual drama that avoids being one sided and preachy by approaching the material through several different viewpoints. Sister Helen Prejean may be an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, but this film rather than take sides on the issue allows for both views to make their case and doesn’t seem to have a hidden agenda. Robbins could’ve taken the easy way out by making the convicted murderer more sympathetic, but from the very first scene he’s in, we know this is no saint and the film doesn’t shy away from what he did and the effect his actions had in the family of the victims. This is one of those rare films that approaches a controversial subject and succeeds at being balanced, which makes it a great tool for discussion.
Sister Helen is probably one of the most authentic Christian characters portrayed on film as she is purely empathetic towards everyone around her. She isn’t forcing her religion on this convict or trying to convert him, but rather finding a way for him to come to terms with what he did and find redemption by taking responsibility for his actions. She truly cares for this man, who isn’t exactly a role model, and there is never any judgement in her words. It is rare to find a spiritual character like this portrayed on film in such an honest way, and Susan Sarandon takes the strong material and delivers one of her best performances to date. She simply cares for everyone around her and she is trying to do what is right because she is committed to her beliefs, and she actually applies them which is a rare thing (not even Christian films seem to get this right at times). Sean Penn also delivers a strong performance as the convict, Matthew Poncelet, who every time he opens his mouth the less sympathetic he is, but it is evident he is trying to hide his true emotions and blame everyone else for what he has become. His chemistry with Sarandon is what carries this movie, but there are also several strong supporting performances. Margo Martindale is an actress that is often overlooked, but she deserves more recognition. She can effortlessly play a villain like in The Leftovers, or a loving and supporting Sister like she does here. R. Lee Ermey and Celia Weston play the resentful parents of the victim, and they share a great scene with Susan Sarandon that says a lot about her character. Tim Robbins hasn’t directed a better film and I think he owes much of the success of this movie to the strong performances along with his well written and thought provoking script.