Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) is a nun who works in a New Orleans housing project. Matthew Poncelet (Scan Penn) is a tattooed convict facing execution for the murder of two teenage lovers. About all they have in common, quips the nervous Sister Helen when she first encounters this unsavory killer, is that "we both live with the poor."
In writer-director Tim Robbins's Dead Man Walking, the nun and the murderer are forced into a kind of spiritual intimacy. Hoping to escape his death sentence, Poncelet writes Sister Helen for help--to find him a lawyer for his appeal, and then to become his spiritual adviser. The man she encounters is a slimy, racist, arrogant lowlife who insists he didn't kill anyone. And as the good sister becomes obsessed with reaching this scumbag's soul, she finds herself alienating others. The black kids she works with at Hope House wonder why she's cozying up to a white supremacist; the grieving parents of Poncelet's victims despise her for giving comfort to the enemy.
"Dead Man Walking" is no simple diatribe against capital punishment. Robbins, through this story based on Sister Prejean's book about her death-row experiences, is asking us to consider what it means to take a human life. What's admirable about his approach is his refusal to stack the deck: he neither turns his condemned man into a misunderstood martyr nor short-shrifts the pain of the victims' families. He sustains his balancing act to the dreadful climax, when he crosscuts between Poncelet's execution by lethal injection and the brutal murders he committed.
It's a strong film, made stronger by two terrific performances. Penn's acting has ruthless honesty. Because his meanness can chill us so deeply, his terror in the face of death-and his last grasp at redemption-move us the more deeply. Sarandon's challenge is even harder: playing saintliness is a tough act-but there's no sanctimony in her performance. Sister Helen is not always sure of herself; there's a touching naivete, and a toughness, to her faith. She's always leaning forward toward Poncelet, nose upturned, wide eyed, her radar attuned to any glimmer of virtue this repellent man might possess.
"Dead Man Walking" is a powerful and intelligent piece of work, yet there's something impersonal about Robbins's approach, a hint of the medicinal. You yearn for an encounter that isn't locked into the interrogatory form of a social worker's visit. And in one great scene you get it: when Poncelet, let out of his cell, pays his final visit with his family. The awkward small talk, the crazy attempt to normalize an unbearable moment, the pointless cheerfulness are brilliantly observed. It could be any strained family gathering, except the prodigal son is chained to his chair, and no one is allowed to hug him goodbye.