Film Review: Dead Man Walking

As someone who generally tries to chase ‘happy feels’ I tend to stay away from the crime and drama genres. However, after reading “The Intent to Live” by Larry Moss, I was left with a big fat list of must-see movies. “Dead Man Walking” directed by Tim Robbins was one of them.

I did not know that this was based off a true story until I went on a Google rampage after finishing the film. As if I needed my heart and guts squeezed any tighter. What a story.

Recently, after watching a handful of films and television shows a second time around, I have learnt to take special notice of the clues the director or writer give us in the opening. The opening scene of Sister Helen (Susan Sarandon) walking into the mission house called Hope House hints us to the driving force behind the entire narrative.

What would “Dead Man Walking” be with the absence of hope? Hope is every characters force to act; the hope for survival, for justice, for absolution. Hope is the vessel that carries all along. Is this much different to life for us all? Is hope what makes life (or being on death row) tolerable, or is it rather something worth living for?

This film is a study on victimisation. We all know how much easier it is to put the blame on anyone but ourselves. We all know it can be difficult to take responsibility. For some, overcoming denial and blame and going within ourselves to find atonement is too much to ask. A good chunk of the characters within this narrative are guilty of this. The parents, for example, project their pain onto Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) and into their fight for his death. After Matthew’s death we could argue that their pain would still be there, unchanged. Matthew, in particular, firmly denounces the existence of his own victimisation and we learn that he hates lazy people of any kind. The irony here is that Matthew does, in fact, play the victim throughout the entirety of the movie without realising it and it is his own laziness (or, rather, fear; which is a form of laziness) which robs him of the ability to confess to his crimes.

This is why we watch movies. This film succeeded in achieving what some might deem impossible: encouraging empathy for a lost boy on death row who has done a terrible, seemingly unforgivable thing.  Matthew sheds his boyhood when he admits what he has done and when he wishes the parents peace through his death. We as an audience, as well as the other characters, can’t help but evolve with him. We come to realise the hard way that ‘an eye for an eye’ equating justice is just a bit off the mark.

This film was a statement on our justice system. The terrifying idea that a government has the right to commit a “cold, calculated murder” was put in lain sight for us to gape at in order to present it as the sickening reality it is. This film shows us what empathy can do as well as what a lack of it can result in. Perhaps if Matthew and Carl Vitello (Michael Cullen) were met with empathy earlier on in their lives, they would not have committed their crimes.

The film does not denounce the importance of punishment but it does shine a light on lost boys as society’s largest problem. By lost boys I refer to those young men you don’t want your own kids to get mixed up with. You don’t want to run into them on the sidewalk at night and you certainly don’t want them in your home. Those menaces to humankind. Matthew’s and Carl’s subscription and loyalty to their own and each others toxic masculinity may be a result of lack of positive role models, lack of love, lack of understanding… lack of empathy. We do not need to be nuns, like Sister Helen, to see that, but rather, perhaps more in touch with our humanity.

The performances in this film were utterly jaw dropping and Matthew’s final scene had me feeling as if I was peering into a sacred, extremely private moment. I can safely recommend this film to every human being on the planet. I’ll leave this with telling you that I now want to be Sister Helen (or even Susan Sarandon) when I grow up.

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