THE CONDEMNED man is led, his hands manacled together, his feet in white hospital slippers, to the death chamber. His only comfort is a nun's hand on his shoulder, and the words of the scriptures she reads to him: "Be not afraid, for I have redeemed thee." Two men hold on to him, lest he attempt to flee his secularly ordained fate. Another couple of guards walk behind him. In front, a priest also quotes the words of the Bible, but in the spirit of retribution rather than solace. After his final words, and tears, he is laid down, his arm gently wiped with alcohol, and finally set before a battery of syringes. We watch with him as the poison runs down the long tubes of this Heath Robinson contraption of horror, until it enters his bloodstream - tube and arm become one vein.

This scene, the climax to Tim Robbins's Dead Man Walking (15), is essentially the same as that described by George Orwell in his 1931 essay "A Hanging": "It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man." Orwell wrote of "the unspeakable wrongness of cutting a life short when it is in full tide", and Dead Man Walking (its title derived from the bark of information let out by a prison guard as the prisoner walks to the chamber), follows in minute detail the last moments of a man on death row. We see how the state ritualises its utter rejection of the condemned individual, and I think we are supposed to regard the execution as judicial murder. But Robbins is careful also to air the views of the victims of the condemned man, to give a sense of their agony and their desire for ultimate retribution.

The film was inspired by the account of Sister Helen Prejean, a nun from Louisiana, played here by Susan Sarandon, about offering spiritual guidance to men on death row. The film conflates two murderers Sister Helen counselled into one representative figure, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), and, in the interests of balance, makes him as unsympathetic as possible. We see too, in brief but hideous black-and-white flashbacks, the appalling nature of his crime (the brutal rape and murder of a young girl and her boyfriend), as well as, in further scenes, its terrible cost to the couple's parents. Robbins is showing us the worst imaginable crime, the least savoury criminal, and arguably, the most humane form of execution, and then asking us whether, still, even in this case, execution is justified or acceptable.

Despite its arguments, Dead Man Walking is best as an intimate drama, a two-hander between Sarandon and Penn. His performance is at first more eye-catching. With a soft twangy southern accent and a composure untrammelled by conscience, he makes this exceptional villainy seem ordinary, unstagey. Penn also shows how illusory Poncelet's control is: his face is set in steely calm - yet we know it is a mask. Just occasionally something like remorse crosses his features like a flicker of light in a dark quarry. There is a swagger and charisma to this killer: when he says goodbye to his family we see that he is their leader, perversely charming, even brilliant. Penn keeps his performance low-key, the more to move us when his death approaches. Then the veins on his forehead stand out, twining into a cicatrice of anguish.

Susan Sarandon deserves her Best Actress Oscar for conveying goodness without seeming bland or sanctimonious. Much of the movie rests on Sarandon's reactions to Penn. She combines assurance with worry, serenity with intellectual inquiry: there is a sense of moral quest. Sarandon acts wonderfully with her big saucer eyes, conveying compassion, fear, and surmise - a sense of her eagerness to pounce and take up any hint of Matt's readiness for salvation. She is aided by a script which gives due weight to the subtlety and tenacity of Sister Helen's mind. If you are looking for the source of Sarandon's remarkable performance, watch carefully a prayer vigil outside the prison. A nun can be seen, tender yet alert - Sister Helen herself.

The movie is less successful when it moves away from its two principals and tries to give a sense of the lives affected by Poncelet. Sister Helen visits the two families of the victims; but their pain, though moving, illustrates the argument rather than grows organically from the drama. Likewise, the odd flashback to her childhood ("You were always taking in strays") and scenes showing her family's complacent incomprehension of her mission feel rigged - another part of the thesis. For all its balance and subtlety, Dead Man Walking is undeniably didactic; often scenes have the heaviness of a dissertation rather than the airy unpredictability of drama.

Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing, which also argued the moral equivalence of murder and execution, had a sense of mystery and awe that put its arguments into a deeper perspective. Dead Man Walking is too stiff and structured. Tim Robbins's direction is intelligent and detailed to the point where it becomes over-calculated. Nothing succeeds better in drawing the film away from its pamphleteering straightness than its music (mainly provided by the Pakistani singer Nuarat Fateh Ali Khan and the Armenian dudouk player, Djivan Gasparyan), which has a mournful quality, somewhere between a dirge and a primordial wail at the fall of man.

As an argument against the death penalty, Dead Man Walking graphically illustrates what Orwell called the "unspeakable wrongness" of capital punishment. But it is more powerful emotionally than intellectually; it milks the imminent horror, as if the whole movie was on death row. The argument for capital punishment addressed is the one that demands that society has retribution for certain heinous offences. But the more effective argument is a utilitarian one. If Poncelet's execution were to prevent a dozen similar murders, just how would Sister Helen feel about it?

Dead Man Walking's very scrupulousness makes it legitimate to query the absence of such arguments. As a film, it is powerful and intelligent, but a little too much of a thesis; and as a thesis it's incomplete. With its emphasis on confession and redemption, it can come close to Christian propaganda. Nothing in the movie is as profound or paradoxical as a line in Bruce Springsteen's great title song: "Sister, I don't want to ask for forgiveness: my sins are all I have".

Renny Harlin's pirate pic CutThroat Island (PG) has already taken its place as a legendary Hollywood flop (death by water is the theme for this year's disasters after Waterworld). It's easy to see why this old- fashioned swashbuckler starring Geena Davis as a female pirate in the 17th-century Caribbean has failed so miserably: it's lamely scripted (full of obvious innuendo) and Davis comes over as awkward and unathletic, while her leading man, Matthew Modine, is reduced to the status of Cameo. Still, you can see what attracted so much money and talent in the first place: the film is never less than handsome and packs some mighty explosions. Renny Harlin emerges with more credit than his wife (Davis), with faultless shot composition and great logistical skill.

Jonathan Lynn's updated Sgt Bilko (PG) is a pale shadow of the original sardonic Phil Silvers television series. But it has its merits: it's as pacy as a TV sitcom episode, 90 minutes whirling by; it has topical gags (owing to "criss-crossed orders", Bilko's riotous unit missed Desert Storm); and it has Steve Martin as the gambling-obsessed Sarge - no Silvers, but a mercurial enough substitute. Still, despite the entertainment, you can't help wondering what is the point of resurrecting Bilko for the Nineties (other than to exploit the nostalgia boom). Its wit and irreverent genius were rooted in the Cold War, out of which they created something universal. The new version reverses the process.

Biggest disappointment of the week is Balto (U), the animated true story of a hound who led a team of sled dogs 600 miles across Alaska to relay antitoxin to the inhabitants. Occasionally, the drawing of the blizzards and snow-swept landscapes has an eerie beauty, but the plot is over-involved and uncompelling. It's only in watching insipid fare like this that you come to appreciate the thrust and polish of Disney. You're better off checking out Toy Story.

Cinema details: see Going Out, page 14.

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