Dead Man Walking (1995): Tim Robbins Biopic Starring Susan Sarandon in Oscar-Nominated Performance

Tim Robbins makes a quantum leap forward with “Dead Man Walking,” a drama exploring the intimate relationship that evolves between a devout nun and a Death Row convict. A chamber-piece for two, superbly acted by Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, Dead Man is marked by dense texture and rich characterization. Inspired by actual events and figures in Sister Helen Prejean’s book, Robbins directed a movie that defies the conventions of Hollywood crime melodramas as well as those of TV movie-of-the-week.

Set in the St. Thomas Housing Project, the tale begins with a correspondence between Sister Helen Prejean (Sarandon), a pious but down-to earth-nun who lives amidst her poor constituency, and Matthew Poncelet (Penn), a convicted killer awaiting execution. Honoring his request, Sister Helen visits the convict in jail and agrees to become his spiritual advisor during his last days–a daring act never before attempted by a woman.

With these parameters established–and the countdown under way–a peculiar bond emerges between the courageous nun who’s deeply disturbed by Poncelet’s anguish, and the criminal, who refuses to deal with his offense, a brutal murder of two innocent sweethearts. During the crucial week that frames the film, the duo undergoes emotional journeys that both parallel and complement each other. Fighting for Poncelet’s life and soul, Sister Helen must overcome her own fears. Poncelet’s path is even more rugged; he has to conquer his fear of death as well as come to grips with his sins and ask for forgiveness.

It’s a measure of Robbins’ intelligent treatment of tough material that though the narrative unfolds in intimate interactions, the protagonists are not isolated from their surroundings. One of Sister Helen’s challenges is to confront the rage of the victims’ families seeking retribution for their loss. In a riveting scene, she visits the murdered girl’s parents, attentively listening to their cri du Coeur. The couple assumes she’s on their side but, when they realize her efforts to be fair to all parties involved, they ask her to leave.

This scene illuminates Robbins’ balanced, uncompromising approach, which refuses to judge any of the characters, giving each a fair chance to present their case with dignity and respect. Robbins’ greatest achievement is in shaping an open-ended film, without humanizing the killer. It’s decidedly not the story of a wrongly accused murderer, or of a “criminal with a heart.” The events are seen through the nun’s probing eyes, but the film presents multiple perspectives, allowing the audience a measure of freedom in interpreting the emotions besetting the characters.

Brief flashbacks of the rapes and murders are inserted with increasing frequency in the last reel, generating suspense as to which specific crimes Poncelet committed the night he and his buddy (who got life imprisonment because he was represented by a better lawyer) were partying in the woods. The manner in which the flashbacks are implanted–brief, partial snippets–also deviates from the more conventional use of lengthy images. Considering the stasis of the central situation–the nun and convict are divided by a partition–the film is absorbing. Lenser Roger Deakins gives the story a realistically unadorned look, which relies on tight close-ups of Sarandon and Penn. Carefully etched, both performances build up to an emotionally satisfying denouement.

Not since I Want to Live! was there a big-screen drama with such attention to the technicalities of execution, and Robbins surpasses the 1958 film in a chilling portrait of what it means to take a human life.