Dead Man Walking, which was released 25 years ago last month, looks at first glance like a typical piece of liberal Hollywood message-based filmmaking. It was from three people known for their strident liberal views — director Tim Robbins and actors Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon — and was about a contentious hot-button issue (the death penalty.)
However, the film is different from others in the genre in quite a few key ways. Going against the tradition of decades of these sorts of movies, it’s about a murderer who’s not only obviously guilty of the crime but also kind of loathsome. The film not only features a nun as the primary hero, but it leans heavily on very Catholic notions of redemption.
Dead Man Walking makes an argument — that there’s room for sympathy not only for innocent people
Dead Man Walking makes an argument — that there’s room for sympathy not only for innocent people convicted of crimes, and for guilty people who committed minor crimes, but also for those guilty of the vilest of crimes — that was well ahead of its time, especially for popular entertainment.
In 1995, the criminal justice reform movement was far from the cultural forefront. The ink was barely dry on the controversial 1994 crime bill. In Dead Man Walking, we’re shown speeches and commercials by politicians calling to “get tough” on crime.
Dead Man Walking is loosely based on a couple of true stories involving Sister Helen Prejean and is adapted from her memoirs, although Penn’s character is a composite based on multiple convicted murderers helped by the sister.
Matthew Poncelet (Penn) is a convicted murderer, on death row for the particularly brutal murder of two teenagers. Nearing his execution date, he contacts Prejean (Sarandon), known as an anti-death penalty activist, to help with his final appeal.
The two meet, and it’s clear that Matthew isn’t a typical movie death row inmate. He’s racist, he’s hateful, he flirts with Holocaust denial, and while he halfheartedly declares his innocence, he’s not presented as someone much deserving of audience sympathy. And the film, while pointing out that Poncelet came from terrible circumstances, and wasn’t able to afford a decent attorney, also acknowledges that he was guilty and responsible for his crimes. Unlike so many movies of this kind, the stakes aren’t about freeing Poncelet or establishing his innocence, although Prejean is trying to get his sentence commuted to life. Instead, they’re about getting Poncelet to repent for his crimes.
Penn has two Best Actor Oscars, for Mystic River and Milk, but his performance here is way better than either
Much of the film is taken up by one-on-one scenes between Prejean and Poncelet, as these two very different people first circle each other, and ultimately get to know one another and form an unlikely friendship.
Indeed, the film is extremely well-acted, with Sarandon winning an Oscar for Best Actress and Penn also nominated, as was Robbins for directing. Penn has two Best Actor Oscars, for Mystic River and Milk, but his performance here is way better than either. And the film is filled with small performances by fine characters, including Robert Prosky, Margo Martindale, Scott Wilson, Clancy Brown, Raymond J. Berry, and even, in a small role as one of the murder victims, a very young Peter Sarsgaard. A young Jack Black also turns up as Penn’s brother.
There’s some heartbreaking stuff here, from the final confession to the scenes in which Sister Helen speaks with the parents of the murder victims, some of whom can’t understand why she would be helping the man who killed their child.
The big names behind Dead Man Walking have fallen a bit in public esteem in the years since. Sarandon takes the sorts of political stances that seem to have left and right equally mad at her most of the time, while Penn frequently does strange things like interview El Chapo and write the worst-received novel of all time. Robbins, who split with Sarandon about a decade ago, has kept more of a low profile of late, although he’ll pop up in a movie or TV show occasionally. To this day, he’s only directed three films, and none since 1999’s Cradle Will Rock.
The film, 25 years after its release, is every bit as devastating as it was upon arrival in 1995.
Dead Man Walking is available to stream on HBO Max.