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Dead Man Walking

MGM Home Video

Starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon

Based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean
Written for the screen and directed by Tim Robbins

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Politics and movies don't mix. "Issue films" seldom survive their creators' agendas. Drama is often pushed aside in favor of polemics and characters are frequently reduced to paper-thin vessels for myopic arguments.

Actor Tim Robbins' first film as a director failed for those very reasons. Bob Roberts started as a wry, often funny mockumentary skewering election-driven antics on both the left and right, but ended in a cascade of numbingly earnest liberal speeches as the conservative characters dawdled around like imbeciles. After that debacle, the idea of Robbins and his wife Susan Sarandon - two of Hollywood's most outspoken liberals - collaborating on a film about the death penalty sounded as dramatically enticing as a Sally Struthers famine infomercial.

The resulting film, Robbins' second, is Dead Man Walking, adapted from the book by Sister Helen Prejean, recounting her relationship with Louisiana death row inmate Matthew Poncelot. Despite Prejean's status as a leading advocate against capital punishment, Robbins' film is incredibly balanced, gut-wrenchingly moving, and one of the best films of the last 20 years.

Sarandon stars as Prejean, a deeply compassionate nun from a liberal order living and working in an impoverished Cajun community. Filled with a strong love for all living things, Prejean fits easily into a life of servitude.

Convicted of rape and murder, Poncelot (Sean Penn) asks to meet Prejean, ostensibly for legal help. With the clock ticking on his execution he hopes her presence will reflect favorably on his sentence appeal. Prejean agrees to help him, but doesn't much trust or like him, despite his half-hearted pleas of innocence.

When his appeal fails and the Governor schedules his execution in six days time, Prejean struggles to reach the heart of this hate-filled, frightened, difficult prisoner — much to the disgust of the aggrieved families of his victims.

Instead of never taking sides, Robbins makes the brave, yet brilliant move of taking all of them. Every character is sympathetic, from R. Lee Ermey as a victim's vengeful father to cowardly posturing Poncelot himself. Just when it seems Robbins may have tipped his hand too far endorsing a particular viewpoint, the moral boat rocks back in the other direction, creating a deservedly complex and tender picture of this very sensitive life-and-death matter.

Sarandon won an Oscar for her performance, and it's a stirring turn by this unusually intelligent actress. Although Prejean is thrust into crushing circumstances, Sarandon handles it all with unconflicted faith. She manages to show self-doubt in her actions while maintaining absolute certainty in her purpose. And her unequivocal love for all feels genuine and affecting.

Penn did not win an Oscar. He was too good for it. He is sublime as Poncelot, a caged animal pacing away the last hours of his life, dissolving from angry pride into self-pitying indignance, but finally making the difficult transformation to dignified acceptance of his own guilt and the pain it's caused to everyone involved. It's one of the single best pieces of acting ever committed to film.

Unusually for a Hollywood picture, Dead Man Walking is also deeply spiritual. Regardless of your own political or religious orientation, watching it is a profoundly provocative and emotional experience. So how did Babe, the Gallant Bacon get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture while this didn't? Pathetic.

Presented in a crisp 1.85:1 widescreen transfer with pan-and-scan available on the flipside, and 2.0 Surround. Includes audio commentary by director Tim Robbins.

— Gregory P. Dorr

(Editor's Note: Dead Man Walking was originally released on DVD by PolyGram but has since been re-issued by MGM.)

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