Fox // 1995 // 122 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // June 5th, 2011
"Between our dreams and our actions lies this world." -- Bruce Springsteen, Dead Man Walking
Based on the a true story, Dead Man Walking follows Sister Helen Prejean (Oscar winner Susan Sarandon, Bull Durham) as she emotionally supports and comforts convicted Louisiana rapist and murderer Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn, Mystic River) as he slowly makes his way through death row's final corridor. As Sister Helen helps Matthew to face the consequences of his supposed actions, she finds herself drawn not only to Matthew's case but also the parents of the teenagers Matthew and his accomplice brutally killed. Helen finds herself growing closer to Matthew -- a man brandished a monster by the media -- and begins to see the soul of a man as he discovers mercy, grace and forgiveness only the spirit of a higher power can provide.
Dead Man Walking is a powerful film made all the more potent and engrossing because of Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon's masterful performances. It's a film about redemption and punishment, vengeance and forgiveness, betrayal and holy grace. Director Tim Robbins has fashioned a film that takes Christian themes and weaves them with secular ideas, and the end result is something startling: a movie that doesn't slam viewers over the head with religion nor secular ideals, but focuses on the redeeming qualities of faith and forgiveness. I would be so bold as to say that there has never been a movie that has so deftly and even handedly presented Christian ideas as Dead Man Walking.
Since I've previously fully reviewed Dead Man Walking on the DVD format, I want to focus on a couple of specifics that have stuck with me after viewing this film more than a dozen times over the past fifteen years (be aware there are spoilers ahead). The first is the often prevailing opinion that Dead Man Walking is a downer of a story, a viewpoint I've heard more than once while discussing the film in a group setting. I will admit that by the time Matthew Poncelet is finally strapped to the execution table and injected with poison, tears will easily flow. Yet the film's emotional core doesn't come from the idea that a man is dying; what is satisfying is the idea that Matthew finally realizes the enormity of his crime and finds forgiveness in Christian religion (which could be substituted for any idea of finding salvation through higher means). The final interaction between Sister Helen and Poncelet at the prison are moments that lift the film beyond mere Hollywood drama into something more, something beautiful.
Great movies rise and fall not only on their leads but also their supporting cast. It's here that Dead Man Walking excels with character actors -- unsung heroes in my book -- who bring pathos and resonance to the film's core. Raymond J. Barry (Training Day), R. Lee Ermey (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Celia Weston (Far From Heaven) are excellent as grieving parents who can't understand Sister Helen's empathy with the man who took away their children. Ermey is especially potent, leaving behind his tough, military exterior and displaying a dramatic flair little seen in his previous films. Margo Martindale (the Paul Newman film Twilight) as Sister Colleen has little screen time but makes an indelible impression as Sister Helen's devoted co-worker and fellow nun. Other smaller roles that shine include Lois Smith (Twister) as Sister Helen's loving but questioning mother, Clancy Brown (who also starred with Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption) in a funny cameo as a state trooper and Scott Wilson (himself a killer in the classic In Cold Blood) as the prison chaplain who doesn't make Sister Helen's work any easier.
Finally, I want to touch on the haunting and overlooked orchestral score and soundtrack. Hands down, this is one of the best film scores in recent memory. David Robbins (related to the director) has fashioned an evocative, wrenching score that is ethereal and almost other worldly in its impact. Using the talents of singers Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder and slider guitarist Ry Cooder (himself a film scorer), Robbins' score is like nothing I've heard before (or since) in a movie. The accompanying songs by Bruce Springsteen (whose "Dead Man Walkin'" was nominated for an Oscar), Tom Waits and Johnny Cash only reaffirm the fact that Dead Man Walking is not only about A-list actors, but also A-list musicians.
Dead Man Walking is a powerful cinematic experience that has lost none of its power more than a decade and a half after its theatrical release. The performances, music and direction are all top notch, making this one of the best dramas Hollywood has ever released.
Dead Man Walking is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen in a 1080p high definition transfer. Considering the original DVD release of this film was a flat, uninspired non-anamorphic image, it's a real joy to have this movie on Blu-ray. The film itself isn't a cornucopia of color or depth -- while the image looks excellent, it isn't overly exciting (the prison setting is quite plain and colorless). Clarity is the biggest improvement here -- the faces and backgrounds practically pop of the screen, making this an exciting buy for fans of the film. Catalog titles can sometimes be hit or miss on Blu-ray. This certainly is not the case with Dead Man Walking -- this is an easy recommendation for those who love this movie.
The soundtrack is presented in a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio in 5.1. This is a very discrete sound mix that utilizes the front and center speakers to full effect and brings in the rear speakers when needed (usually during the score and song set pieces). Because Dead Man Walking is a dialogue heavy film the soundtrack isn't a full throttle thrill ride -- much of the film is just two people talking face to face. Although it's not going to blow away your home theater, this sound mix does the trick. Also included on this disc are Dolby 5.1 mixes in French and Spanish; as well as English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese, Dutch and Korean subtitles.
The extra features included on this disc are identical to the ones found on the original DVD, including a commentary track by writer/director Tim Robbins and a theatrical trailer for the film.
Dead Man Walking is well worth your time.
Review content copyright © 2011 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated R