Dead Man Walking is a 1995 film directed by Tim Robbins. Susan Sarandon plays Sister Helen, a nun who’s faith is put to the test when she is asked to be a spiritual advisor to a prisoner on death row for killing two teenagers, Played by Sean Penn. Matthew Poncelet is sexist, racist, and vehemently denies doing anything. As his spiritual advisor, Sister Helen must help Matthew to recognize and truly atone for his sins before his death, so he does not go to hell. Sister Helen manages to form a close relationship with Matthew, and minutes leading up to his death he confesses and reconciles with his sins, granting Sister Helen to give him the salvation he needs.
After confessing, the guards lead him out and so begins the execution scene of the film. Matthew drops to his knees in vulnerable desperation as it hits him that he is marching towards the face of death. Sister Helen tells him that she wants the last thing he sees in the world to be “a face of love”. She reads holds onto his shoulder and reads from The Bible, determined to be a comforting touchstone for him in his last moments. The camera slowly pans up as we see the sterility and indignity of the paper shoes and the diaper underneath his clothes.
The haunting score by David Robbins kicks in as they beginning strapping him in the chair and turning machines on. The camera holds as the nurse sticks the needle in Matthew’s veins. The clock ticks…the audience waits on baited breath as the minutes go by. It’s hard not to imagine yourself being minutes away from knowing you’re going to die, the time slowly slipping by before you’re propelled into uncertainty.
Matthew is raised up to make his last words. He looks at the parents of those he killed in their eyes, and hopes that his death gives them some relief. Poncelet continues, “Killing is wrong whether it’s me, or y’all, or your government”. This is the question that makes the audience soul-search and confront the arguments of the death penalty head on. Matthew Poncelet’s death will give the parents peace, it is the vengeance that the parents have been waiting for and feel they deserve. But is killing wrong no matter what? Or does someone who takes the lives of others deserve their life taken away?
When Sister Helen met with the parents of the young girl, the parents asked her if Matthew deserved comfort when he died when their daughter did not have anyone to comfort her as she was raped and killed. This question lingered in Sister Helen’s mind as she grappled with her conscience and in ours as we view this scene.
The machines start their work as the lethal injection slowly starts to take hold. Susan Sarandon’s character holds out her arm to him through the glass, whispering “I love you”, giving him comfort as his eyes slowly droop. The parents glance over at her angrily. And that’s when Tim Robbins brilliantly decides to inter splice between Matthew’s execution and the scene of the crime. We see what happened in the forest that night, what was done and how awful it was.
Splitting between the execution and crime scene illustrates how Susan Sarandon’s character was torn between protecting and redeeming a life (as she feels all of God’s children deserve) and whether he deserved that because of his sins. Sister Helen struggled just as the audience is now torn between the moral ambiguity that the death penalty brings. The juxtaposition of the tenderness between him, Sister Helen, and the horror of that night in the woods leaves the audience conflicted with feelings of both empathy and disgust.
This scene illustrates how the film doesn’t push an agenda. Yes, we have gotten an empathetic look at the killer but we also heard the devastation of what the parents have gone through. Dead Man Walking lays the questions on the table, but doesn’t try to answer them. It is less about right vs. wrong and more about love and compassion. Does someone deserve forgiveness and redemption despite what they’ve done?
Sister Helen asked herself that, and she decided to stand by what she learned from her religious calling, to love the sinner before the sin. She was someone who believed the best in Matthew despite the chauvinistic and caustic front he put up. Susan Sarandon brought a fierce compassion and unwavering determination to her character. Sean Penn, opposite her, gives a brilliant performance that makes the audience feel empathy and humanity despite his animalistic actions.
Without his well-crafted performance the audience would have not have been able to face the questions the film brings, which are summed up in this scene. Is killing wrong no matter what or is it sometimes justified?
Watch a cut of the scene below: