Film: Mercy he sought and mercy he found

Adam Mars-Jones reviews Dead Man Walking, a winner for Susan Sarandon
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The Independent Culture
In Robert Altman's The Player, the film that more than any other established Tim Robbins as a force to be reckoned with, there was a plot about a pair of screenwriters working on a script dramatising the death penalty. It was going to be fiercely unsentimental, a breakthrough picture. By the time it reached the screen, of course, it had Bruce Willis bursting into the gas chamber to rescue Julia Roberts, and plenty of idiotically cute dialogue (Her: "What took you so long?" Him: "Traffic was a bitch"). Dead Man Walking is Robbins' attempt to make that film for real, without compromise.

In his acting persona, Robbins has a strong element of smugness as well as charm (his face naturally gravitates towards a smirk), which can be well used by directors. Robbins wasn't one of them, though, when he cast himself in Bob Roberts, his overrated debut as a director. Dead Man Walking, in which he doesn't appear, is a very much better film, but still there is a certain hollowness about it, as if this wasn't a serious Hollywood movie about capital punishment but the same thing in inverted commas, "A serious Hollywood movie about capital punishment." As if Robbins is saying the whole time, you said it couldn't be done and here it is. So there. You underestimated me.

Robbins wrote the script, based on the autobiographical book by Helen Prejean, a nun who befriended prisoners on death row. In the film, Helen (Susan Sarandon) helps Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) get a lawyer, and when his appeals fail she agrees to be his spiritual adviser. The moment of her decision is well handled in the film. She is still reeling from the refusal of the appeal, uneasily aware that it was she who brought the condemned man's mother to plead for him, which made no difference - and not because she was too upset to speak - so when Matthew makes his request on the way back to the cells, she agrees in conversational rhythm, without having time to think about what she's getting into.

Sister Helen Prejean is an implacable opponent of the death penalty, and Robbins may fancy himself one, too, but their logics are likely to be different. From a nun's point of view, worldly authority usurps God's power when it condemns a man to death - it's as simple as that - while a liberal's argument is likely to be compound: that justice should be more than revenge, that capital mistakes are irreversible, that considerations such as race, political expedience and money determine who actually suffers. The nun at the centre of this liberal's film, though she lives in a bad part of town and devotes herself to the betterment of the poor, cares less for social rehabilitation than for redemption. In a strange way, and without apparently realising it, she is at home with the process of judicial murder. She wants to talk to Matthew about important things, about last things, and the imminence of a lethal injection makes him a whole lot more likely to listen. The knowledge that he will be pumped full of poison in the morning concentrates a man's soul wonderfully.

Susan Sarandon's Oscar for her role is at least in part sentimental, but it's a reputable sentiment, in so far as it attaches to Sarandon rather than the supposed worthiness of the film. Hers is a unique career. She was never conventionally good-looking, in an industry that eats beauty, and she is of a generation (born 1946) that did not take strength in women for granted. The way her emotional range has increased over the years is closer to a process of self-education than the claiming of a birthright. Younger performers can embody strength, but they miss out on the inner uncertainty, the struggles on the way to assertion.

That said, her performance in Dead Man Walking isn't in the same class as, say, her work in Lorenzo's Oil. There is a faint encrustation of mannerism - in the way she fractionally closes one eye to convey shock, in her resorting to a whispered intensity. Sean Penn holds his own against her far better than Nick Nolte did in Lorenzo's Oil, and continues the redemption of his acting that began with Carlito's Way. Perhaps it helps that he is handcuffed throughout the movie, so that even lighting a cigarette requires contortions that risk igniting his white-trash pompadour. There are actors (think of James Caan in Misery) who need physical restrictions to help them build a focused performance.

In dramatising Prejean's book, Robbins has been careful not to sentimentalise a killer. He has condensed two real criminals into one composite, but he has drawn on the less obviously redeemable traits at his disposal. Matthew is a racist who has a swastika among his many tattoos and who, when interviewed, offers words of praise for Hitler. Robbins also goes in another direction, not only avoiding whitewash of the condemned man but making space for the bereaved parents. The father of the murdered boy breaks up with his wife, and cites the interesting statistic that 70 per cent of parents who have a child killed divorce as a result. The other mother and father invite Helen into their home and movingly share their emotions, until they realise she hasn't changed sides by coming to see them, and is still Matthew's spiritual adviser. Then they order her out of the house.

In a way, they have a point. There's a fine line between being fair to all parties and having no opinion of your own, and even if the real Sister Helen Prejean managed to stay on the right side of it, that's not to say that the film about her will do the same. The dramatic power of the situation is simply too great to be ignored: a human being on the launchpad to extinction, the countdown implacably continuing. But how do you condemn an institution while also living off its momentum? This is a special case of the general principle that applies to issue movies, perhaps particularly the well- made ones. Energy intended for a change of mind is used up instead by the heart, as emotion.

It's well known that Billy Wilder shot an elaborate execution sequence for Double Indemnity, of which he was very proud, and then cut it, since it overpowered the rest of the film. Robbins doesn't have that option, and doesn't seem even to have located the problem. To put it very simply: the humane and politically responsible plot-turn, a reprieve for Matthew, would leave the film with a grotesque anticlimax - and Sister Helen without a soul snatched from darkness, since he would surely recant. As a film- maker Robbins exploits what as a voter he deplores.

Perhaps it's to his credit as a film-maker that he pulls out all the stops towards the end, with Christly imagery, grieving choirs and the ghosts of the murdered teenagers reflected in the glass of the lethal chamber. The only trouble is that these strivings for dramatic release make it look as if the death penalty is actually a rather effective orchestration of anger, both personal and institutional, remorse first false and then true. Despite appearances, Dead Man Walking will confirm audiences in the opinions they started with, while offering them the flattering illusion of considering the alternatives. It's more like a Rorschach blot than a contribution to debate.

n On release from tomorrow

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