A Review by Graeme Bacque

Based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, this film tells the story of a nun who is asked to serve as spiritual advisor to a condemned prisoner named Matthew Poncelet (played by Sean Penn) at Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary. This particular inmate is someone who it is very hard to sympathize with - as well as his involvement in a vicious rape and double murder, he is an avowed neo-Nazi. But the message being conveyed is that no matter how despicable their actions, no human being is beyond redemption... and that the act of cold-bloodedly murdering someone in the name of 'justice' is as evil as it is futile... the ultimate abuse of power by the state. 
The pacing of the film is slow and deliberate, but interest never flags, as Prejean (played by Susan Sarandon, in a role which won her an Oscar) repeatedly urges Poncelet to accept responsibility for his actions, even as she assists him in the last-ditch legal appeals for his life. As the hour of his death draws near, Poncelet finally realizes the futility of continued denial... and accepts full responsibility for his crime. 
The admirable thing about Dead Man Walking is that it offers a totally compassionate and balanced analysis of one of the most contentious political issues of our time, while remaining true to its own principles. The anguish and rage of the victim's families is paid far more than lip service... we feel it every step of the way. And the crime itself is depicted repeatedly through flashback sequences. Aside from this, there is no gimmickry used in this movie... only a sad realism. The execution itself - by lethal injection - is depicted with one hundred per cent authenticity, and juxtaposed as it is with images of the crime scene, makes for the most heartbreaking and chilling climax I have ever seen to a movie. The message conveyed is that no one has the right to take the life of another... be it an individual or the government. 

The film was written and directed by Tim Robbins, and includes a superb musical score featuring vocals by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Eddie Vedder (The singer from Pearl Jam) as well as songs contributed by Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Patti Smith, and Michelle Shocked, just to name a few. This is the second time in a little over a year that Robbins has been involved in an excellent prison-related film - he co-starred with Morgan Freeman in 1994's The Shawshank Redemption. 

Don't ask me why, but for as long as I can remember, I have had incredibly strong feelings on this particular issue... when I first saw this film last January, the guard's cry of "Dead man walking!" as the condemned man was led to his execution triggered me so violently that I nearly bolted from the theatre... and subsequent viewings have not been much easier to take. I state here and now that I am totally, adamately, opposed to capital punishment... or any other deliberate harm inflicted upon another person in the name of 'justice.' This type of calculated, cold-blooded violence is abuse of the worst kind, pure and simple... and it has absolutely no deterrent value whatsoever. On the contrary... it sends a clear message that deadly force is a perfectly acceptable way of dealing with conflict, even as it pretends to condemn this kind of behavior.