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Emotional brutality makes for brilliant Dead Man Walking


Directed by Tim Robbins.

Starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon.

Sony Nickelodeon.

By Audrey Wu
Staff Reporter

For those of you who don't bother to read long movie reviews, I will get straight to the point: Dead Man Walking, which addresses the hotly debated question of whether the death penalty should be allowed, is one of the best films I have seen in a long time. What are you waiting for? Go see it. Now.

For the rest of you: Susan Sarandon is in her usual top form as Sister Helen Prejean, a rather naive nun who finds herself unwillingly ensnarled in controversy when she becomes the spiritual adviser to Matthew Poncelot, a convicted killer on Louisiana's death row. Sean Penn, who is perhaps better known as Madonna's "boy toy" than for his acting prowess, hasn't headlined a major movie since Carlito's Way in 1993. He will be almost certainly catapulted into the ranks of the Hollywood elite after this film. His chilling portrayal of Poncelot is convincing and effective.

What makes Penn's performance especially impressive is that Poncelot's character is deceptively complex. One moment, he is a cold-blooded killer; a bigot whose first word was probably a racial slur; a wannabe Nazi who sports a swastika tattoo (among several other colorful designs); and a wannabe terrorist who, in television interviews, actively announces his ambition to bomb federal buildings. At other times, he can be very charismatic, despite the horrific murders for which he is to be executed. It is also worthy to note that it could not have been easy for Sarandon or Penn to shoot the last few scenes of the film; shooting an execution scene is very depressing business.

Sister Helen's spiritual counsel to Poncelot is really nothing more than a plot contributor in this film. The most impressive aspect of the film is its comprehensive analysis of the death penalty issue. It follows Poncelot from the murders, through his several appeals, and finally to his execution in excruciating detail. No matter what your particular stand is on the death penalty, this film will make you think about the many different arguments surrounding the controversy.

In addition, the film is particularly effective because of its emotional brutality. At the beginning of the film, Poncelot seems nonchalant about being on death row. He is cold and heartless; his inevitable death will be no loss to society. But during the course of the film, he becomes pitiable. He and a friend contributed to the murders; each accused the other of firing the fatal shots that killed the victims. Poncelot's friend hired a hotshot lawyer and received a life sentence, while he could afford only a public defender and received the death sentence. Meanwhile, Poncelot's mother is heartbroken, and cannot testify at his appeal hearings without breaking down in tears. Poncelot's brothers are ostracized at school. Intertwined with these scenes, which bring on feelings of sympathy for Poncelot, are appalling reminders of the brutality of the murders: flashbacks to the murders and displays of the intense grieving of the family of the victims, who feel that Poncelot's death would give them some semblance of peace. The film shows how the murders ripped apart the marriage of one of the victim's parents: "Till death do us part," the father bitterly comments.

Even politicians do not escape the scope of the film. Most politicians find it politically impossible to be seen as soft on crime. In the film, Poncelot is not much more than a pawn in their bids for election. But the most cruel scenes comes at the end of the film. While Penn is subjected to the anguish of waiting for the guards to escort him to the death chamber, the audience too feels each brutal moment slowly tick by. Worst of all, Poncelot is reduced to a scared child, and no matter how terrible the murders were, I don't believe there was anyone in the audience who could, without any twinge of conscience, think that he deserved to die.

Dead Man Walking is a definitive triumph for director Tim Robbins. It would have been too easy for Robbins (or any director, for that matter) to make a film that staunchly took one side of the issue. What is an impressive feat, and far more difficult, is that Robbins puts forth the controversy without pretending that only one side is right. The film challenges you to actually give some thought to the death penalty issue. I wouldn't suggest seeing it if you're looking for a good time at the movie theater. Don't look to this movie for much action, adventure, or excitement. From the beginning, Poncelot's execution is inevitable -- you spend more than two hours waiting for it. Although I know that different people will react differently to the film (one of my friends found the execution scene hysterically funny, for some strange reason), be prepared for your conscience to take a flogging. Robbins's view is finally summed up in Poncelot's last words, "I don't think killing is right, whether I do it, or you, or the government."

Be prepared to re-evaluate your particular view on the death penalty. You will walk away from the movie theater with a sense of the tragedy of any murder, whether it is committed by a person or by the government. And you will leave with a bitter sense of pity for the approximately 2,700 people who wait on death row today, and the more than 20,000 people who are murdered in the United States each year. Now what are you waiting for? Go see Dead Man Walking for yourself.