Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Dead Man Walking

 I'm somewhat out of sequence here as I watched this immediately after Hombre and not Collateral. I have had trouble writing a review for it as it is one of the best films I have ever seen and want to get it right. This is now my second attempt.
 I saw this when it was released but I almost missed it as the screening I saw was the last one. When thinking of this I remembered the days when my local cinema would always announce in the paper how many days were left until the run finished. It has been a long time since they have done that and I can't recall when they stopped doing so. Isn't it funny the little things we remember when we look back over all the years we have been going to the flicks?!
 But onto a more serious note because Dead Man Walking is a very serious film with a serious message. It was interesting to have watched Hombre before this as both have clear messages they are putting across. Here in Dead Man Walking it is about the death penalty. I will always remember this film vividly because of the impact it had on me. I quite literally felt punched in the face by it and its gritty, uncompromising story of a convicted murderer on death row.  Only two films in all my life have shaken me as much as this and they are both fictional, Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects. As fine as those two are I'm afraid Dead Man leaves them for ( please excuse the pun ) dead.
 It is based on a book written by a nun who becomes the spiritual adviser to death row inmate Matthew Poncelet after he asks her to be. It is an absolutely harrowing film as Poncelet is not a nice guy at all. He is an arrogantly ignorant racist full of biogotry, and hatred. He is the epitome of poor white trash who spouts his admiration of Hitler. As we meet him we immediately dis-like him, and we can only marvel at the strength of character and faith of sister Helen Prejean, who herself can't take to him either.
 Sean Penn is absolutely brilliant as the dispicable Poncelet. This was his break out role and I still consider it is best, even over Milk and 21 Grams. Maybe the 'method' is being used here and Penn is delving into his own bad boy persona, but he is believable and chilling as the red neck Poncelet. One thing I remember about Dead Man is that Penn was critisised heavily for his hair style. It was said to be too poncy and vain, but for god sakes this is a vain, arrogant, piece of the proverbial. The hair style fits him perfectly and only highlights his smug belief in how tough he thinks he is. Penn was nominated for an Oscar for this performance and I will always believe it was criminal he didn't recieve one.
 Susan Saradon is also brilliant and did win an Oscar. This for me is her stand out role and she is just utterly believable as Sister Prejean. She pulls off the gentleness and patience of a nun superbly even when faced with such a loathsome person as Poncelet. She is outstanding as a nun who finds the depths of despair and reaches the point of asking God for guideance as the reality of death row hits her.
 The whole film is incredible and full of outstanding performances. The parents of the victims are well portrayed as is their hatred towards Poncelet. They all struggle to comprehend how this nun can supposedly be on his side and ignore their views. She does go to see them in their own homes but one couple turn her away when she says she will still see Poncelet. The other couples marriage falls apart and the father slowly asks Sister Prejean for her help. All very true to life and depicts grieving parents of murdered children far better than Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones.
 But ultimately this is Penn and Saradon's show and they are good, very, very good. For me the whole film is excellent, and Tim Robbins must be highly commended for making this film what it is. It is right in every detail. Poncelet is repellant. Sister Prejean gracious and patient. The parents grieving and hateful. Poncelet's family disturbed and bullied. The jail staff just doing their jobs, etc. Which all leads to the final twenty minutes of the film. And here things really get gut wrenching.
 Those last minutes depict the last half hour of Poncelet's life. He and Sister Prejean sit on death row and watch the minutes tick away. Finally Poncelet cracks and the truth comes out. He admits he killed the teenaged boy and raping the girl. He falls to pieces as he admits he only done so because he was hanging out with an older and tougher guy who he was scared of and wanted to emulate. Up to then we have dis-liked Poncelet but when he confesses we feel a real streak of sympathy for him. He is a creature of poverty with no education and no future. He drifted into crime because their was nothing else and ulitmately paid the price by siding with the wrong sort of person.
 It is a truley powerful scene and once watched is never forgotten. It was as fresh in my mind as if I'd only watched it the day before and not fifteen years previously. The whole film leads up to it and is very clever in doing so because it humanises Poncelet and shows his actions in their true light. So while we gain sympathy for him we can't forgive him.
 The point of the whole film, and especially the last twenty minutes, is that we find out through Poncelet's confession that he didn't kill both teens. His partner stabbed the girl seventeen times after he raped her and yet only got life imprisonment. When that comes out the whole point of the film is the death penalty the right answer? Is it fair? In this case it wasn't fair because one murderer got life and the other got death for exactly the same crime.
 Honestly, this is as good a film as you will ever see. Powerful isn't a good enough word here. It is gut wrenching and extremely thought provoking. The viewer is asked so many questions and is pulled this way and that as they are introduced to all sides of the story, that by the end they are mentally shattered. Brilliant performances from Saradon and Penn lift this film to unbelievable heights. For me personally, Dead Man Walking, along side The Bridges of Madison County and The Usual Supects, is one of the greatest films to come out of the 1990's.
Brilliant, objective, and unmissable.
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 I recommend also a British film starring Timothy Spall call Pierrepoint. It was made in 2007 and is also about the death penalty. Spall plays the British hangman who hung most of Britain's death row prisoners and also many Nazis after the war, particularly those from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. It is also well made and extremely thought provoking. Pierrepoint himself said after the death penalty was scrapped in Britain that it was nothing but vengence gone wild.

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