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Case Number 00909

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Dead Man Walking

MGM // 1995 // 122 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // December 13th, 2000

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All Rise...

Editor's Note

Our review of Dead Man Walking (Blu-ray), published June 5th, 2011, is also available.

The Charge

The story about looking into the eyes of a killer…
and finding the heart of a man.

Opening Statement

Based on the non-fiction book by Sister Helen Prejean and written/directed by Tim Robbins, Dead Man Walking is the affecting story of one man's road to spiritual redemption. Susan Sarandon (The Client) won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Sister Helen, and Sean Penn (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) was nominated for his role as the imprisoned Matthew Poncelet. Hailed by critics and audiences alike, Dead Man Walking asks questions about faith and redemption rarely present in most Hollywood films. MGM presents Dead Man Walking in its original widescreen ratio and a few rare extras.

Facts of the Case

While living at the Hope House (a center for inner city children) in Louisiana, Sister Helen Prejean (Sarandon) gets a request from a death row inmate at Angola Prison for correspondence. She does so, and he soon requests a face to face visit. She agrees and goes in to see the inmate. There she meets her pen pal Matthew Poncelet (Penn), convicted of raping a girl in the woods, then killing her and her boyfriend with a shotgun. Poncelet is from a poor family, and inside him lays ignorance, anger and spitefulness. Poncelet is set to be put to death, but claims he had nothing to do with the murders. He instead blames his counterpart, Vitello, who was with him in the woods that night drinking heavily and doing drugs. He asks for Sister Helen's help making up an appeal for his case and she agrees. With the help of a lawyer (Robert Prosky), they work to get Poncelet's ruling overturned.

At the same time Sister Helen meets the victim's parents, the Percy's and the Delacroix's. Until now she has only heard from Poncelet and his side of the story. Through the parents eyes she is able to see the horror and repercussions of Matthew and Vitello's act of violence. Sister Helen is sympathetic to the parent's feelings, but also wants to help Matthew with redemption, feeling that everyone is entitled to the love of Christ. The parents don't see it this way. It's either their side or Poncelet's. Nothing in between. Sister Helen is torn between her sympathy for the parents and her unconditional love for Matthew.

Time draws near as Matthew's case is taken before the board and turned down. He now lays in wait for his approaching death sentence. Sister Helen stays by his side to once again try and postpone the sentence, but more importantly find out the truth in Matthew's heart and show him that even our worst sins are forgivable in the eyes of a loving God.

The Evidence

Rarely does a film take you on a journey that will last long after the credits have rolled. Dead Man Walking is that rare a film. Tim Robbins had tackled directing once before (the political comedy Bob Roberts). Here he presents an intelligent film that does something surprising; he takes a controversial topic (the death penalty) and sways neither way. It is able to look through the eyes of all involved and pass no judgment. Sister Helen is of the belief that every man is worth more than his greatest sin. She sees the death penalty as no answer to Poncelet's crimes for it is only God who should take life, not man. The victims parents rightfully believe differently. This is summed up when the murdered girl's father Clyde Percy (R. Lee Ermey) recalls when his brother-in-law went to the morgue to identify the body: "Before he'd stuck his hand into that bag with all that lime in it to fish Hope's jaw out of it, he was against the death penalty. After that he was all for it." When Clyde made this stoic and somber statement, it made chills run up and down my spine. Imagine the horror and tragedy these parents felt. Robbins doesn't cheaply wring these emotions out of us. He does so by letting the actions speak for themselves. It's rare to care this much about characters on screen. What's even more rare is to care for both sides.

It's easy to understand and sympathize with the parent's pain. But Robbins is also able to make us feel for Matthew. I loved the fact that this film made me stand back and ask questions about the nature of evil and the power of redemption. At first the character of Matthew Poncelet has no decent qualities apparent. Just another killer behind bars. As the movie progresses, we learn about Matthew though his speech, his family, through flashbacks, and even through Sister Helen. In the end I found that Matthew is not a soulless killer with no remorse; he is a man hardened and torn by the world he inhabits, imprisoned by the circumstances he's put upon himself. He has made a mistake like we all do (albeit a larger and more serious one). On this level we see Matthew not as a monster, but as a human in need of someone's love.

The performances in this film are nothing short of extraordinary. Sarandon was deserving of the Oscar for her performance of Sister Helen. Helen is a woman of strong faith, but realizes that she doesn't have all the answers. This is her first time counseling a death row inmate and the enormity of the task tends to grow with each passing visit. Sarandon forgoes any make-up of beautifying constraint for her character. She takes a career risk in making Helen plain and simple. There are no clichéd plots about love between inmate and nun, no false witnesses or testimonies. Robbins understands how these devices would only be detremental to the movie's impact. Sean Penn is at first chilling as Poncelet, a man so eaten by anger and revenge towards the world which he feels has turned its back on him. He blames everything and everybody for his situation; society, drugs, booze—everything but himself. In the end Penn makes his character into much more than a heartless murderer (if, indeed, he is that). He makes him human, therefore fallible. There aren't many times where we see ourselves in the portrayal of a killer or rapist. For the first time, I did.

The supporting cast is moving with R. Lee Ermey as Clyde Delacroix, consumed with hatred and anger for Matthew. Ermey has been good in many film appearances, including Full Metal Jacket, The Frighteners, and a voice in Toy Story 2. Here he is exceptional playing a character very much against type (he usually plays army/drill sergeant types). Roberty Prosky excels as attorney Hilton Barber, a Southern man who sees Matthew's crimes but accepts the case out of respect for Sister Helen. And in a light moment, Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption) as a police man hesitant on giving a nun a speeding ticket. The music selections are equally as good, with the score done by David Robbins with vocals by Eddie Vedder of "Pearl Jam" and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, plus songs by Bruce Springsteen (Oscar nominated for the song "Dead Man Walkin' "), Johnny Cash, and Ry Cooder.

Dead Man Walking is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen with a 1.33:1 pan & scan version on the B-side. Unfortunately this is non-anamorphic, but otherwise the picture was clear and crisp, with only the SLIGHTEST bit of grain spotted. Colors were bright and clear with no bleeding, and blacks solid and thick. No digital artifacting was present. A very good transfer over all. As a side note, Dead Man Walking was originally released by Polygram, then picked up by MGM. To my knowledge and searching this is the same transfer as the original Polygram release.

The audio portion of this disc is not quite as good as the video, but does the job where needed. Dead Man Walking includes Dolby Digital 2.0, and sounds good for what it is. Dialogue and music were clear with no overlapping or straining to hear either one. This would have been nice to have had as a Dolby 5.1 track, but it should suffice.

MGM has given us an unusual number of extras, especially since MGM is not known for being DVD friendly (obvious as this is a non-anamorphic transfer). We get a full frame theatrical trailer that, for a trailer, is very affecting. It sums up the film pretty well and pulls you in to wanting to see the film (probably why I saw it the first time in the theaters). The trailer is unfortunately pretty scratched up with much grain, but at least it's the theatrical trailer and not the feature.

Finally we get a commentary track by director Tim Robbins which is rare though MGM. Robbins talks much about the history of the story and his interactions with the real Sister Helen (also a consultant on the picture), plus different actors and extras in the film. The track is a bit dry, if more informative than entertaining. Then again, this is not a light movie, so a light commentary track would have been blatantly out of place.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Obviously I have much high praise for this film. It is really hard for me to find anything negative about Dead Man Walking. The story is moving and well written with top notch acting and directing. One small detail would be that Sean Penn's character is made up to look a bit TOO sadistic, with his bouffant hair style and coiled facial hair coming off as a bit too mean. Otherwise I have nothing but high praise for the film.

Closing Statement

For the price of around $19.99-$24.99 (or in some cases even lower), Dead Man Walking is a great buy. With a well done transfer, a decent audio mix and a commentary track, this is well worth picking up and having in your collection. Even if you don't believe in the work of Jesus, Dead Man Walking is still an inspiring tale of one mans walk of redemption and spiritual discovery.

The Verdict

Free to go because of the great virtues this disc has to offer. Court is dismissed.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 85
Audio: 70
Extras: 60
Acting: 100
Story: 98
Judgment: 92

Perp Profile

Studio: MGM
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
• Spanish
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary Track by Director Tim Robbins
• Theatrical Trailer


• IMDb

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