Dead Man Walking (1995)
Written & Directed by Tim Robbins
In the last couple of weeks, I have felt so much anger & hate towards the police. I won’t repeat things I’ve said in the privacy of my home with my wife, but they have been rancorous things I never thought I would say about anyone. There is a part of me that knows this depth of hate isn’t good for the human psyche, and yet it is so easy to give in to these violent thoughts. I’ve watched over 300 videos of police brutality done on protesters, which has had a powerful effect on me. The police shouldn’t be let off the hook for a single act of cruelty and murder, but I think I needed to see this film right now to help temper my justified outrage.
Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) is a Catholic nun from Louisiana living and working in government housing with her fellow nun Sister Colleen (Margo Martindale). Sister Helen receives a letter from Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), an inmate on death row for the rape and murder of two teenagers. He wants the nun to petition the appeals board to commute his death sentence. Sister Helen begins to feel conflicted because she sees Matthew’s basic humanity beneath his scarred and ugly exterior. However, the parents of the murdered teens and the community begin to find her efforts as wrong and insensitive. Sister Helen makes it her goal for Matthew to find peace regardless of the outcome of their efforts and to die, feeling the love of at least one person on this planet.
Filmmaker Tim Robbins never tries to present the story as cut and dried and make sure that Matthew is guilty of the crimes. This is not a case of the wrongfully accused, there are reenactments of that night that make it clear we are dealing with a murderous rapist. He didn’t do it alone, had a partner who it’s implied egged him on, but Robbins refuses to blame the partner either. Matthew did the crime, and there is no getting around that. Robbins even has Prejean directly confronted by the parents of the teenagers, the girl’s parents (played by R. Lee Ermey & Celia Weston) spit venom at her for daring to aid Matthew. The boy’s father (Raymond J. Barry) is still mad but seems beaten down by grief and his wife leaving him because she can’t move past this tragedy.
On the flip side, we meet Matthew’s mother and his brothers, getting a glimpse of his upbringing. His mother lives in a lower economic class than the teenagers’ parents. His mother is another broken person, resigned to the loss of her son to the death penalty. Life has never shown her a brighter side to things, she was likely born poor and will die poor, as well as her children. Sister Helen feels deep empathy for all the people caught up in this complicated, profoundly painful situation. She understands the parents’ fury with her, but she cannot die the human dignity of Matthew while wanting him to fully accept the horrific crime he committed.
Robbins asks us to consider what it means to take human life, and if the state taking a life is a reasonable response to murder. The execution scene that ends the film is a rough emotional experience, and the director smartly intercuts between Matthew’s lethal injection with his crimes. Sister Helen tells him before they are separated for the procedure to begin that she will be the face of love to him as he leaves this world. That struck me powerfully, the idea that even the vilest human being deserves to see love at least once before they die. And it’s really fucking hard to give love to people who do so much harm and inflict so much pain; for those parents, it’s perfectly reasonable for them to have boiling anger. Sister Helen never chastizes the parents and gives Matthew assurance that his final wishes that his death gives them peace are a noble idea.
I will never be perfect, and I will never expunge hate from my heart entirely. This is part of being human. The key is to keep the hate from taking over your heart & soul completely. Outrage is not wrong, neither is anger & fury. But to be consumed by these fires leaves a life of potential in ashes. We kill our empathy when we embrace our hate. We’re all a work in progress, especially myself. I will never temper my passions, but I need to work on growing my empathy, especially for people that infuriate me. It’s not about them entirely, but about keeping myself spiritually healthy as well as being a model for others on how to balance fighting for what is right without becoming a destroyer yourself.