Dead Reckoning 

The stunning Dead Man Walking

The stunning Dead Man Walking

A few minutes into the horror-comedy From Dusk Till Dawn, two criminals rob a liquor store and shoot the cashier for no reason. In a moment played for laughs, the man is then doused with liquor and burned alive. The two killers abscond with a hostage, a teller from a bank they have robbed. As one killer goes off to find food, his partner invites the terrified woman to watch TV with him in their cheap motel room. He then rapes and mutilates her, splashing the walls with her blood. The other killer returns, gets upset with his partner, and decides to flee before anyone discovers the crime. The woman is a faceless nonentity, a victim without a family, a history, or a single identifying trait besides fear. The man who leaves her body behind is the movie’s hero.

For me, the cruelty of this offhand carnage didn’t entirely register until a scene in the new drama Dead Man Walking brought it home. In a modestly furnished living room, surrounded by family photos, two parents recount for a stranger the day they realized their daughter would never come home. They had opened the door to her room that morning, expecting to find her smiling and ready. Instead, they found her empty bed, still made, undisturbed. When they called her boyfriend’s parents, they discovered he had never come home either. For a moment, her father says, the hope flickered that the two kids had run off to be married—and then it vanished. Days later, the bodies of the boy and girl were discovered, discarded in a woods.

The most haunting image in that whole wrenching scene, for some odd reason, is the single shot of that neatly arranged bed. Earlier in the film, we have received unsettling glimpses of the crime scene—a car isolated in a dark woods, a face appearing unexpectedly in a car window—and we learn of the murders long before we see the victim’s family. But the weight of those snuffed lives remains intangible, somehow, until we see that one mundane detail. It suggests that the world was altered, and diminished, in some irrevocable way. For the parents, we immediately understand, there is something far worse than the agony of the initial shock: the inescapable presence of that empty bed, and the million other reminders of the awful routine of grief.

The precision of these details elevates Dead Man Walking to something far more troubling—and worthwhile—than a simplistic anti-capital punishment treatise. Adapted by director Tim Robbins from a 1993 book by Sister Helen Prejean, a New Orleans nun who ministers to condemned prisoners, Dead Man Walking refuses to deliver the satisfaction of vigilante theatrics or the hollow pieties of propaganda. Rather, it offers a thoughtful consideration of the value of a life—and what it means to take one.

The life in question belongs to Matthew Poncelet, a prisoner awaiting execution in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for the murder of the boy, Walter Delacroix, and the girl, Hope Percy. Poncelet, a composite character based on two men depicted in Sister Prejean’s book, wants to fire off a last-minute round of appeals but can’t find a lawyer; he writes Sister Prejean looking for legal help. Reluctantly, she visits Poncelet and agrees to give him whatever help she can manage.

It comes as no surprise when Poncelet’s appeals are rejected: This is not a movie about stays of execution at the stroke of midnight. There is death in the air surrounding Matthew Poncelet from the moment he appears. And Poncelet is hardly a wronged innocent. Although he insists his partner committed the murders, he blames his victims, regards himself with repulsive self-pity, and shows no remorse. He is doomed, and the movie never says the world wouldn’t be a better place without Matthew Poncelet. That puts Sister Prejean in an unenviable position: She must spend Poncelet’s last days on earth helping him find his soul, so it can be taken away.

Rather than cutting back and forth between calendars and clock faces, Robbins emphasizes long takes that make us feel the laborious passage of minutes. The movie develops an unrelenting rhythm—a lockstep toward the inevitable. But as Sister Prejean moves back and forth between Poncelet, who begins to show signs of humanity, and the grieving families of his victims, we realize that Robbins has nothing so simple as an anti-death penalty tract in mind.

Instead, he forces us to compare what the state has in store for Poncelet with what Poncelet did to his victims—a comparison that offers no easy answers for either side. If you reject capital punishment, you’re left with the question of why Poncelet deserves to live when his victims received no such choice. If you support the death penalty, you must reconcile condemning one killing by ordering another—which blurs the distinction of what behavior is being punished. In its detached, bureaucratic efficiency, the methodical, premeditated execution is as unnerving as the horrible rape and murders that preceded it.

Robbins’ direction is even more eloquent than his carefully crafted, plainspoken script. He keeps the camera at a respectful distance but emphasizes the constricting space around Poncelet, especially the barriers that separate him from Sister Prejean. When they first meet in prison, at one point she literally cannot see past his cage—the light on the protective glass breaks him up into pixels. But as he comes to understand her sincerity, and she sees glimmers of redemption in him, Robbins places them both in the same frame on equal terms. His sensitivity to detail is most evident in the stunning scene of Poncelet’s last meeting with his family: Everything from the lime-green institutional furniture to the forced air of nonchalance adds to the grotesquerie of the situation.

This attentiveness extends to the performances. In a performance of emotional complexity and daring uncommon even by his standards, Sean Penn finds the perfect amount of vulnerability underneath Poncelet’s oily hostility without extorting pity from the audience. As he faces death, his mortal terror elicits tears for Poncelet as a human being, not the embodiment of an ideological stance. As Sister Prejean, Susan Sarandon brings a worldly practicality to a role that could easily have seemed cloying or self-righteous. In their roles as the victims’ family members, Raymond J. Barry, R. Lee Ermey and Celia Weston convey rage, anguish and decency in heartbreaking proportion. And the movie has filled every supporting role with faces that don’t seem to have come from a casting call.

Dead Man Walking has been unfairly slammed as a polemic, perhaps by people who can’t separate Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon’s offscreen reputation as committed liberals from their work onscreen. But the movie hardly stacks the deck, which will probably anger some viewers even more. Many people will leave feeling that Matthew Poncelet’s fate is an unhappy necessity. But even they will be forced to consider his essential humanity, just as he must face that of his victims. When we leave Dead Man Walking, we carry that empty bed home.

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