Dead Man Walking
Written and Directed by Tim Robbins
With Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon
(Polygram/Working Title, 1996)
by Mark Phinney
In Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), Sean Penn brought to the screen a character that has lived in our minds for over a decade. In Dead Man Walking, Penn has done it again, only this time around, you cry instead of laugh. A blank stare and feelings that matched were what I carried out of Tim Robbins’ second film. The combination of cold prison steel, rural landscapes, and the gray drone of the Boss makes the tragedy of this picture all the more surreal, and a fitting homage to right and wrong.
Dead Man Walking is the true-life account of a death row inmate (Penn) and Sister Helen Prejean (Sarandon), the nun who tries to get through to him and to the family of his victim. Sarandon conveys the emotional stature of a woman secure in her faith, and Penn opposes her perfectly – it is angel and devil between the bars, and Sarandon melts through them to reach Penn.
I had complete faith in Robbins’ taking on such a big responsibility with this film – his Bob Roberts (1992) held together perfectly for a directorial debut, and Dead Man… is a fine complement to that achievement. The acting and direction mesh perfectly here, with documentary footage, stills, flashbacks, and an outcome that will have you re-evaluating your own prejudices. The best thing about this film is the imagery it conjures up – cell doors slamming juxtaposed against blue skies, the rural loneliness, backwoods and shotguns, Tom Waits, and Johnny Cash.
Dead Man Walking stands on its own two feet. Whether Penn’s character is guilty or not, it passes no judgment, offers no remorse, and reminds us that we are all victims, and that we are all murderers.