Dead On Movie review: Unquestionably powerful, 'Dead Man Walking' does not flinch on the subject of execution. It offers both punishment and tender mercies for those who endure its raw power.

January 19, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

To kill or not to kill, that is the question, and "Dead Man Walking," to its credit, doesn't have an answer. It seems to suggest the moral complexities of capital punishment are too dense for glib solutions.

A meditation disguised (effectively) as a drama, it chronicles a naive but good-hearted nun's engagement in the life and ultimate execution of a Louisiana death row inmate. But unlike so many obligatory liberal screeds on capital punishment, Tim Robbins' brilliant and lacerating movie plays fair.

The inmate is no victim of a cruel racist, classist justice system, railroaded by powerful white men with a vested interest in the status quo and a blind eye toward the injustices in the world

they have constructed. The film doesn't ask the easiest question, which is: Does the state have the right to put an innocent man to death?

It asks the toughest question: Does the state have the right to put a guilty man to death? Matthew Poncelet (a chilling Sean Penn) is that horror of horrors, a violent felon with a long history of terrible acts, a true denizen of the gutter. One night in a drug-influenced stupor he comes across two necking teen-agers and, with an equally addled, narcotized buddy, rapes and executes them.

What a tough argument that one makes! It's easy to empathize with the innocent; empathizing with the guilty slime of the world requires a heart of such Christian purity that only those seriously close to sainthood need apply. That would be Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), a socially conscious inner-city nun who is nevertheless naive enough to be manipulated by the clever Poncelet until she is so involved with him, there's no turning back.

The best thing in "Dead Man Walking" is that at no point does Sister Helen ever enjoy certainty. Hers is a journey through darkness, pain, burgeoning self-awareness and finally evil. She comes eventually to cut through the miasma of Poncelet's strutting, preening vanity and Kevlar cocoon of selfishness and reach the twisted child inside. But in her heart of hearts, it appears she's seeking his spiritual survival, not his bodily survival.

But the movie also widens to look at the crime and the hole it has ripped in the wall of the universe. Unable quite to understand why, she nevertheless makes an attempt to meet the parents of the victims and understand their pain, which is considerable and savage. She also, almost in a rite of purification through humiliation, forces herself to endure their rage and contempt.

Ex-drill sergeant and "Full Metal Jacket" star R. Lee Ermey is especially powerful as a parent crippled by rage, but it's really Raymond J. Barry, as the other father, who comes to represent the moral center of the film.

Sister Helen, by her vows, must love Matthew, repugnant as he is. Lawyer Hilton Barber (Robert Prosky) must represent him, out of political commitment. Mr. Percy (Ermey) must hate him. But it's Mr. Delacroix (Barry) who stands for the Rest of Us: His life ruptured by a terrible tragedy, he can nevertheless look upon the droog who committed the unspeakable act and, guided by Sister Helen, begin to see human glimmers, pain and doubt, a tremor of the heart underneath the tattooed exterior -- and understand the immensity of what is to be done to Matthew in his name.

"Dead Man Walking" rubs your nose in the clammy reality of prison and the broken hearts of the survivors of crime. It is remorselessly heavy sledding, but it continually offers tender mercies to those who endure the rawness of its emotions.

In one sequence, it watches Matthew die, and one cannot but be moved by the mechanical cold ness with which the state snuffs out his life, the clanking of the lethal injection device as it suffuses his veins with poison and his gradual numbing into extinction. Horror? Indeed.

But on the other hand, the execution is intercut with the climactic re-creation of that night in the bayou when two lives were obliterated for the mere amusement of the obliterators. There's even a sequence in which we see the children somehow watching in the reflection in the glass, and as Matthew joins them, they at last disappear: a suggestion that the souls of the innocent are not liberated until those who took their lives are punished. It's a brave statement to make, and Robbins deserves great credit for looking at the unwatchable without blinking.

'Dead Man Walking'

Starring: Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon

Directed by: Tim Robbins

Released by: Gramercy

Rated R-rated (violence, profanity)

Sun score: *** 1/2

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