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A matter of faith and death
A region 2 DVD review of DEAD MAN WALKING by Promethius

To misquote Socrates (or was it Plato?), every story is only ever told to an audience which already agrees with its message. If true, the reason why you're reading this review may well be because, given the editorial slant of this website, you suspect it might confirm something for you. It feels good.

This is a bind for filmmakers and every other kind of storyteller (including reviewers). Dismissing those filmmakers who seem solely reliant on visual gimmickry in return for cash, (and such a dismissal is probably a rallying cry for this site), the principled filmmaker wants to make a difference. Preaching to the converted is nice, but ultimately it changes nothing.

So, Dead Man Walking is, in many ways, a serious attempt to reach across the divide. It tries to seek out an audience that might not be entirely sympathetic to its message. The film title and the prison genre tell us immediately that this is about execution, unless it's some display of spiritual brilliance. Of course, in truth it's both, though without the special effects.

If you're not religious, don't be put off by the churchy content. This is a political film, in so far as it's about how we should respond to evil. If you're not political, don't be put off by the liberal content. This is a spiritual film, in so far as it pulls no punches about the nature of evil and the human condition.

Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for her role as Sister Helen Prejean, a New Orleans nun whose practical faith leads her to confront a seriously nasty piece of work. Prejean agrees to act as Spiritual Adviser to Matthew Poncelet, played by Sean Penn who was Oscar nominated for the part, and who is nearing execution for a brutal rape and double murder.

The word 'brutal' so often prefixes such crimes, it becomes almost meaningless. Yet these transgressions are indeed savagely violent, and explicitly depicted as such. For every captivating Kung Fu kick, every siren superhero smack ever committed to celluloid, this is the answer. This is what violence really looks like. At the very least, it's unsettling to watch.

Poncelet is not a nice man. This is reinforced again and again. He denies the crime, claiming credibly perhaps that he is the patsy. But his true nature is out there for all to see. He is devilish looking: cold, dead eyes; a slick sta-puff quiff and a self-aggrandising goatee. He has a drawl that kills his words and cuts you open at the same time. In a news clip of his court conviction, Poncelet draws his manacled hand across his throat in a chilling and remorseless threat to his jury.

In his first meeting with Prejean, he is calculating the odds, estimating the opportunity to manipulate her naivety. Poncelet is "Looking for a loophole," and reckons Prejean can help him find it. He says: "You're very sincere. You've never done this before… never been this close to a murderer before," and coldly watches her reaction, gets his measure of her. Later he catches the virgin nun off-guard, bringing sex into their discussion. "We got intimacy right here now don't we… I like being alone with you. You look good to me."

During their meetings, the craft of the film shines. The wire mesh separating the two characters moves in and out of focus, obscuring or clarifying how they see each other. And later on, reflections in glass put their two faces side by side.

If the good Sister is innocent, at every turn she is confronted with hostility and increasing isolation as a result of her decision to act for Poncelet. The victims' families pour contempt and rage onto her: "You've brought the enemy into this house," says one distraught parent after recounting his daughter's murder in horrifying detail. And her own close and loving family aren't supportive either. Her mother is mystified: "Why don't you help honest people?" Which is a bit like saying why don't you make films for people who agree with you.

Prison Chaplain Farley (Scott Wilson) warns her at the outset: "There's no romance here. No James Cagney 'I've been wrongly condemned…' They are all con men and they will take advantage of you every way they can." In fact the reference to Cagney does hold up. Poncelet has a family too, and his younger siblings look up to him every bit as much as the Dead End Kids admire Cagney's gangster in the 1938 classic Angels With Dirty Faces.

Executed or not, what Poncelet believes in matters. This is the crux. Whatever it is that motivates Poncelet's words and actions has a knock on effect, whether it's to destroy lives or to save them by setting an example to others who follow

This is Prejean's territory. She confronts his belief system: "Was your daddy a racist? …You have to teach a child to hate." And when he admits respect for Martin Luther King, because he worked hard for what he wanted, she points out to him that: "It's lazy people you don't like."

Poncelet doesn't like it. He tries to keep Prejean's attention on a Federal Appeal, while she tells him about Jesus: a rebel who had to be killed because he was so dangerous. "Like me," says Poncelet. "Not at all," says Prejean. "He changed the world with his love. You watched two children die."

This is what sets Prejean apart from others. We see that despite her apparent naivety, she is under no illusions about who Matthew Poncelet really is. The difference is her response. She doesn't judge him, nor condemn him. Just as she questions herself at different points in the story, she consistently, relentlessly confronts him with himself.

And this is the politics of the thing. Our response to evil. If this is about execution, the language and parameters of this piece are governed by religious faith. In particular, a faith that in America, inhabits the political spectrum in a manner completely alien to any European system, (ironic given the historical American impulse to escape political influence over religion). The death penalty comes up for evaluation but perhaps this isn't really the major point.

If the story, which is inspired by true events, shows how the death penalty changes nothing, it is trying to communicate that message to an unsympathetic audience in a language it understands. It argues in its opponents' terms, saying that belief and faith can and does change things, much more powerfully, than mere extermination. So what kind of world do we want?

This is a pertinent question for our times. It seems odd perhaps that some of those who advocate a religious faith are also those who shout loudest for blood. Whether or not you believe that the appropriate response to what you fear (whether murderers or terrorists) is to kill it, this is worth watching. You will be challenged, either by the message, or the language, or perhaps both.

I would like to think that in making this film, Tim Robbins was proving Socrates (or Plato) wrong, and was making a connection to an indifferent audience, however I doubt it. But hats off, this is a valiant attempt, and to be fair, the responsibility is surely on each of us to challenge ourselves. After all, what's the point in going to see something you already know you'll like? It might feel good, but does it change anything?

sound and vision

Framed at 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a splendid transfer, sharp without any sign of distracting edge enhancement, with colours having a very natural appearance and no sign of over-saturation. Contrast is excellent, with fine detail in both shadow and white highlights, sometimes side by side.

The 5.1 mix here makes scant use of the full sound stage, though given that the film is largely dialogue driven this never feels like a compromise mix. Talk is largely confined to the centre speaker, with only some background effects and the music spreading further afield.

extra features

The key special feature is without doubt the commentary from writer and director Tim Robbins. A man of considerable political conviction (not to mention film-making talent), he soberly provides some excellent background information to the production, from the use of real locations to subtle changes made to the original story in order to highlight other issues surrounding such cases. Detail is provided on the characters and their interpretation by the actors, whose work inevitably comes in for praise, as well as the music and the reasons for its selection. Robbins obviously has a huge amount of respect for the real Sister Helen, and very eloquently and intelligently puts the anti-death penalty case, remarking that you need to be able to see and understand both sides of the argument to be truly opposed to it. There are a few dead spots, but this is largely a very fine, very informative track.

The theatrical trailer (2:28) is presented 4:3 but in fine shape. It gives a fair flavour of the film, though covers a bit more of the story than I'd prefer to know if I hadn't seen it.

The original release TV commercial (0:31) is essentially a compressed version of the above, laced with positive press quotes.


An extraordinarily humanist and even-handed look at a subject that tends to polarise opinion, Robbins' powerfully performed and beautifully crafted film presents its arguments persuasively, emotionally and intelligently, but never as a one-sided polemic.

MGM's DVD has a great picture and a very informative commentary track, and considering the disk can now be picked up for £7 on-line this represents solid value. Highly recommended.

Dead Man Walking

118 mins
Tim Robbins
Susan Sarandon
Sean Penn
Robert Prosky
Raymond J. Barry
R. Lee Ermy

DVD details
region 2
1.85:1 anamorphic
Dolby Digital 5.1
English for the hearing impaired
Director's commentary
TV spot