Critics' Corner

Desson Howe - Weekend section, "An extremely affecting experience."

Hal Hinson - Style section,
"An intelligent, balanced, devastating movie."

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Susan Saradon won an Oscar as best actress for her role in this film.

'Dead Man Walking'

Scene from this movie Helen Prejean, a nun who works with the poor, receives a plea from Matthew Poncelet, who has been condemned to death for the slaying of two teenage sweethearts. Sister Helen, who follows the teachings of Jesus Christ unquestioningly, immediately makes the trip and meets with the inmate.

Poncelet insists he is innocent. Although he held the victims for his partner, he claims, he did not participate in their rape, stabbing and shooting.

Believing his story, Sister Helen joins forces with pro bono attorney Hilton Barber, and goes through a rigorous process of appeal that leads all the way to the state supreme court and governor's office. -- Desson Howe Rated R

Director: Tim Robbins
Cast: Susan Sarandon; Sean Penn; Robert Prosky; Raymond J. Barry;
R. Lee Ermey; Scott Wilson
Running Time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Filmographies: Susan Sarandon; Sean Penn

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'Dead Man': Walking Tall

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 12, 1995

To say that "Dead Man Walking" is about the death penalty is only superficially accurate. Not only do you witness the excruciating horrors of Death Row and the process of state execution, you see it through politically balanced eyes. On the divisive issue of capital punishment, both hawks and doves will come away with satisfaction.

But even more importantly, writer/director Tim Robbins's movie, based on the true-life account of Sister Helen Prejean, is an extremely affecting experience, down to the last agonizing moment.

Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), a nun who works with the poor in a New Orleans housing development, receives a plea from Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), who has been condemned to death for the slaying of two teenage sweethearts.

Sister Helen, who follows the teachings of Jesus Christ unquestioningly, immediately makes the trip to the Louisiana state penitentiary in Angola and meets with the inmate.

Poncelet, a pompadoured, trashy bigot (actually a dramatic composite of two distinctively different Death Row prisoners that the real Sister Helen met with), insists he is innocent. Although he held the victims for his partner, he claims, he did not participate in the rape, stabbing and shooting that they suffered.

Believing his story—or, perhaps, wanting to—Sister Helen joins forces with pro bono attorney Hilton Barber (Robert Prosky), and goes through a rigorous process of appeal that leads all the way to the state supreme court and governor's office.

Sister Helen's faith in this thankless endeavor is challenged on every level. Poncelet is an unapologetic racist, who beat up blacks as a child, admires Hitler and believes the Holocaust was a hoax. Her family asks her why she's helping a convicted killer instead of needier project children. And the victims' parents (including a sensational Raymond J. Barry as the dead boy's father) are appalled that she has met with a killer but not cared to visit them.

But what matters most in "Dead Man Walking" is the relationship between Sister Helen and Poncelet. Penn, who dispensed with his no-more-acting rule to appear in this movie, proves he's wrong to give up the profession. As Poncelet, he's a caged, unsympathetic weasel, a raging victim, an almost pathetic figure and, somewhere inside all of that, a touching human being. You can't keep your eyes off him. But his role shouldn't overshadow Sarandon, who leads you gracefully into the belly of the beast. She provides a perfect, understated counterpoint to Penn.

Robbins's script makes enlightening inroads into Poncelet's psyche, the anguish of the bereaved parents and Sister Helen's divided attitude toward her incarcerated charge. And his instinct for the details is right on the money. Attorney Barber's vivid description of what happens to the recipient of a lethal injection (the punishment Poncelet faces) is unforgettable. And in the movie's best scene, Poncelet (whose death at this point seems assured) spends a few, parting hours with his family, just shooting the breeze and jousting with his three brothers. The intimate, tense rapport as the family tries to ignore the horrible, is devastating and, like the whole film, stays with you for a long time.

DEAD MAN WALKING (R) — Contains flashback depictions of a rape and murder scene, plus profanity and racist remarks.

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A Tale of Giving the Devil His Due

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 12, 1995

"Dead Man Walking," the emotionally wrenching new movie from writer-director Tim Robbins, begins innocently enough when Sister Helen decides to come to the spiritual aid of a convict awaiting execution in New Orleans's Angola Prison. A devout nun dedicated to helping the poor in the St. Thomas housing project, the sister, played with moving vulnerability by Susan Sarandon, has only one motive: to assist those in spiritual peril. And Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), a trashy punk who has been found guilty of brutally murdering a teenage couple, certainly qualifies. But in opening the door between her world and Poncelet's, this genuinely good woman can't possibly know what she's getting herself into.

What this intelligent, balanced, devastating movie puts before us is nothing less than a contest between good and evil. With his satanic goatee and vainglorious pompadour, Poncelet carries the shadow of death within him. He's a viper, manipulative, lethal, capable of anything—anything, that is, except normal human emotion. To most people—and especially to the parents of the murdered couple—Poncelet is less than an animal, a monster. Who else—what else—could be capable of such horror? And how could such a creature be worthy of the sister's mercy?

But to Sister Helen, her responsibilities are clear. Regardless of his crimes, Poncelet is one of God's children, a dark soul seeking salvation. During their first prison encounter, she seems at best naive, and at worst a dupe. Profoundly ill-equipped to deal with the prisoner's elaborate mind games, she allows herself to be suckered into believing that there might be something in Poncelet's claims of an unfair trial.

Convinced that Poncelet's poverty, as much as his crime, put him on death row, Sister Helen tries to get him a new trial. While the legal details are being worked out, she and her spiritual charge stage a series of extraordinary encounters. In her effort to understand him, she asks about his life before prison, but in the process she reveals as much about her circumstances and expectations as he does about his. As a result, a remarkably intimate bond—even a kind of love—develops, despite the wire screen separating them.

For the audience, the rapport between these imposing actors is palpable. Penn's performance is the fussier of the two, and early on, his surface mannerisms make it difficult for us to get inside the character. Poncelet appears as soulless and irredeemable as everyone thinks he is.

Later, though, we begin to understand that this impenetrable facade is a part of the character's—not the actor's—armor. As the legal alternatives are exhausted and the time of execution approaches, Penn allows these protective layers to fall away, one at a time, giving us a glimpse of the man within. The strength of Penn's work lies in his complete refusal to ask his audience for sympathy. It's a tough-minded, exacting performance, and equal to anything this gifted actor has ever done.

Sarandon is his match in every sense. During the course of the film, Poncelet is transformed from a monster into a man. But while the sister's journey may be shorter in moral terms, it is no less harrowing, and Sarandon shows the price she pays for every step. Virtue may be the most difficult thing for an actor to play, but while Sister Helen remains a steadfastly "good" woman, Sarandon never allows any plaster saintliness to creep into her performance.

Dealing with an issue as volatile and complex as the death penalty is a tricky proposition, and in the hands of another filmmaker, "Dead Man Walking," which is based on the 1993 bestseller by Sister Helen Prejean, might easily degenerate into a simple-minded polemic. But Robbins—whose work here surpasses even the high expectations that followed his debut with "Bob Roberts"—smartly avoids all of them by taking a human, rather than a political, approach to his subject. It's not an issue movie.

The real subject here is compassion, not capital punishment. "Dead Man Walking" asks whether a man like Poncelet, who has been found guilty of causing inhuman suffering and who appears without either remorse or conscience—who appears to lack even the minimal requisites of a human being—deserves to be treated like one. The movie's answer is yes, but this conclusion—which flows from the nun's own attitude—has far less to do with Poncelet than with us.

Dead Man Walking is rated R for violence, profanity and adult situations.

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