Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Ten


#10 — Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins, 1995)
When a filmmaker is active politically outside of their chosen profession, it can disrupt the balance of their art. That’s especially true when the work in question is itself political in nature. It’s good when a film has a point of view, but a lack of equitability in the presentation of ideas can be devastating, especially for a drama. Without an intellectually honest consideration of whatever dilemmas are presented onscreen, a film can begin to seem like it’s betraying its characters and its audience. It becomes agitprop instead of art. Sometimes this is the case as much from the perceptions that moviegoers helplessly carry into the theater with them like hefty sacks of popcorn, making it all the more crucial for a director to kept their work steady. Once you’ve seen Tim Robbins tilt at the windmills of global injustice from the Oscar stage, it’s hard to watch a film he’s written and directed without trying to figure out where his agenda has drifted in like a phantom, and sometimes it seem to glimmer into sight even when it’s not really there.

There are some that adamantly disagree with me about Dead Man Walking‘s evenhanded nature, arguing that the views of the filmmaker are all over it, to the finished product’s detriment or benefit. There’s certainly no more mystery about his view of capital punishment than there is about that of Sister Helen Prejean, the devoted fighter against the death penalty whose true story is told in the film. As depicted by Susan Sarandon, she is a serene but determined advocate of mercy, trying to understand rather than simply condemn. The film centers on her work with a young man sentenced to death who’s played by Sean Penn. Named Matthew Poncelet, he’s a character that’s a composite of two different inmates counseled by Prejean. Robbins depicts their conversations with startling intimacy, an embrace of the edged and sympathetic emotions that undoubtedly run like a current through any dialogue that takes place in the chilled, quiet horror of death row. Even as he’s clearly trying to stir up thought and discussion about capital punishment, Robbins is primarily drawn to examining how individuals of strikingly different backgrounds, mindsets, and belief systems connect with one another. The film is about an issue of potent political debate, but it’s really about people first and foremost.

Some of those people are the lingering victims of Poncelot’s crime, those who’ve been left behind in anguish over the loved ones who were cruelly torn away. Robbins gives proper deference to their pain and the desire for harsh justice that often flows from it. The empathetic treatment of their emotional wounds provides the film with a weight it wouldn’t otherwise have. It turns it from an editorial page piece into a genuine and thorough consideration of the decisions that must be made in matters of crime and punishment. It’s not that people on opposite side of the argument feel passionately. That’s just what feeds the frothing cable news debates that are staged to satisfy the intellectual bloodlust of the citizenry. Instead, the thing that makes it difficult is that many people care about the issue with true hearts. Their conclusions haven’t been reached rashly, but after honest deliberation. Robbins allows them the dignity of their beliefs, and that elevates Dead Man Walking. It may be clear what Robbins himself has to say about capital punishment, but he allows his film to say more.

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