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Dead Man Walking (1995) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

sister helen film poncelet

Principal social theme: capital punishment

Polygram. R rating. Featuring: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky, Raymond J. Barry, R. Lee Ermey, Celia Weston, Lois Smith, Roberta Maxwell, Margo Martindale, Barton Heyman, Peter Sarsgaard, Larry Pine, Scott Wilson. Written by Tim Robbins based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean. Cinematography by Roger A Deakins. Edited by Lisa Zeno Churgin. Music by David Robbins. Produced by Jon Kirk, Tim Robbins, and Rudd Simmons. Directed by Tim Robbins. Color. 122 minutes.


Sister Helen Prejean has become one of the leading advocates for the abolition of the death penalty over the past twenty years. Her 1993 book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States portrays the development of her prison ministry when she became the spiritual advisor for Elmo Patrick Sonnier, who was sentenced to die in Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. The book became an international best seller and was developed into a motion picture. The film version fictionalizes her account to a considerable degree. For example, Sonnier went to the electric chair whereas Matthew Poncelet, his alter ego in the film, was given a lethal injection. Poncelet, in other words, became a composite of a number of death row inmates that Sister Helen met instead of Sonnier alone. Additional changes were done for dramatic purposes and for the protection of the victims’ family members, who are given prominent roles in the film. Sister Helen served as technical advisor for the production, appearing briefly in one scene at a candlelight vigil. Dead Man Walking was well received and one of the major contenders for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Susan Sarandon won the award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Sister Helen.


The plot outline for Dead Man Walking is rather straightforward. After corresponding with death row inmate Matthew Poncelet, Sister Helen Prejean visits the prisoner, who asks her for legal help in filing a brief. Poncelet is an unrepentent, bitter man, who claims he was not responsible for the murders of a teenage couple parked in a lover’s lane, blaming his cousin, Carl. Sister Helen agrees to help him, persuading a lawyer to help handle his appeal. A hearing is held, after which Sister Helen is approached by the family members of the victims who ask why she never tried to contact them. Poncelet’s appeal is denied, and when an execution date is set, Sister Helen agrees to serve as his spiritual advisor. She also meets with the victims’ family members and tries to counsel them. But one set of parents rejects her and asks her to leave when they learn she still intends to minister to Poncelet. As the time for the execution nears, Sister Helen helps Poncelet come to terms with the crime he committed, and the inmate finally accepts responsibility. A flashback reveals the cruel and senseless murders. He had intended to taunt the families of his victims with his last words, but instead he offers an apology and dies with a sense of dignity.


Unlike a number of other pictures dealing with capital punishment, Dead Man Walking attempts to balance the presentation of the issue by showing the feelings and opinions of the parents of the victims, albeit briefly. The film plays slowly, methodically, more like a series of character portraits than a linear plot. Susan Sarandon plays Sister Helen like the calm in the eye of a storm, revealing her emotions only when she is alone or with another member of her order. She reaches out during the excruciating execution process to everyone involved, from the condemned man’s family, the prison staff, and the loved ones of the murdered teenagers. The film does play on the emotions of the audience, yet it does not seem artificial or forced, except for one moment toward the end of the execution scene when Poncelet is raised after he is strapped to a table (in a Christ-like pose) to address the witnesses with his last words. Sean Penn has to be credited with the honesty and conviction of his performance. His character is most definitely unsympathetic, an arrogant racist and brutal man. He undergoes a change in his last scenes, but it is a believable transformation, neither maudlin nor phony but a forthright acceptance of his situation. Viewers studying this film could approach it in various ways, such as determining the attitude toward capital punishment and which, if any, their opinion changed as the film progresses. In what ways does the violent flashback of the murders, intercut with the execution scene, affect the attitude of the audience on the issue, either by making the death penalty seem justified or by demonstrating that taking a life under any circumstances is abhorrent? Is the hostility of the angry set of parents well handled or too strident? Although critical opinion about Dead Man Walking had a wide range of interpretation, almost reviewers agree that the film avoided offering any easy answers. If this picture intended to make audience members rethink their own convictions, then it certainly achieved its purpose.

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