Director and screenwriter Tim Robbins accomplishes a difficult task in Dead Man Walking: he expresses a heartfelt opinion on the death penalty without seeming either preachy or one-sided. Dead Man Walking is the story of Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), a racist rapist and murderer who is serving his final days on death row. Susan Sarandon is Sister Helen, a nun who visits, consoles and befriends the man in those last few days. She acts as the viewer’s eyes; we see the events as she experiences them, and facts are revealed as she discovers them. She not only visits the inmate, but also the families of the victims of Poncelet’s crimes. Raymond J. Barry is Earl Delacroix, father of a boy killed by Poncelet. He is the most sympathetic of the parents, still haunted by his son’s death, and forced into divorce because of the event. The parents of the raped girl fare worse…they are presented as hateful and spiteful. Both R. Lee Ermey and Celia Weston desire a harsh justice, and are shown as being unreasonable in their thirst for revenge. They are perhaps the weakest characters in the movie. Sarandon is good in her non-showy part, which mainly involves guiding the viewer along. The true winner here is Sean Penn. He shows that Matthew Poncelet is a stupid and violent man, but a man nonetheless. The film definately has its opinion on the death penalty (it is against it), but doesn’t force that opinion. No one who is pro-death penalty will change their mind due to this film…but it won’t drive them screaming from the theater either.
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