dead man

Dead Man Walking

Provost's Film Series

March 1, 2005


The Face of Christ

By her own report, Sister Helen Prejean is not a saint: she is prone to speeding tickets, picks quarrels, and is often impulsive, occasionally diving into trouble.  A nun in the Order of St. Joseph, Sister Helen had no idea how deeply she would be plunging into tempestuous waters when she responded to a letter written to her by a Louisiana inmate on Death Row.  For the next several years she offered spiritual advice and comfort to four men condemned to die, trying to be "the face of Christ" for prisoners during their last days before execution.  She encountered not only the fears of the inmates, but also the deep grief of the victims' families as well as the continual suspicions of the state.  All that led to her memoir—Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. 

Her story, a surprise bestseller in 1993, caught the eye of actress Susan Sarandon, a graduate of New Jersey Catholic schools who remembered nuns more for their iron rule than for their open hearts.  Inspired by Prejean's moral vision, Sarandon convinced her partner—actor and director Tim Robbins—to make a film.  At first, the Sisters of St. Joseph were hesitant.  "We've had the flying nun, the singing nun," Prejean explains, "it's either flaky stuff or the nuns who are leaving."  But Robbins and Sarandon succeeded in winning Prejean's trust. Sister Helen sent Robbins a copy of Albert Nolan's Jesus Before Christianity, and the ex-Catholic director and the devout Catholic nun soon began collaborating on a script.  That script would probe more deeply into the complexities of Christian service than virtually any other recent American film.


Robbins and Prejean

The film's title is the cry shouted by the wardens whenever an inmate leaves his cell for the long walk to the electric chair.  Robbins sought to be faithful to Sister Helen's narrative, in spirit if not in exact detail.  For the purposes of fitting a long memoir into a two-hour script, Robbins compressed two of the murder cases into one composite story, a decision that antagonized some members of the real victims' families.  

Both Robbins and Prejean oppose the death penalty and have often, especially in the post-film years, spoken boldly against it. Given their sentiments, their great challenge was to keep the film from becoming a simplistic diatribe against capital punishment. They also realized that a film needed to avoid advocating cheap grace.  Consequently, the script does not shy away from underscoring Sister Helen's naiveté and the fierce pain of the victims' families.  In life, Sister Helen would drive across the Louisiana swamplands every Friday to pray with the father of one of the victims, a man originally outraged at Sister Helen's tenderness toward his daughter's rapist and murderer.  Robbins insisted the prayer scene belonged in the film, though Prejean initially balked, fearing this final image of piety would be "hokey."  "You're the nun," Robbins asked her, "and you're telling me that we can't end this thing with prayer?"  This scene of prayer and reconciliation would indeed provide the film's coda—but not without merging into Bruce Springsteen's ghostly ballad about a "pale horse" come to claim the prisoner.  "Sister, I won't ask for forgiveness," the weary voice sings.  "My sins are all I have."


The Death Penalty

Most Americans, especially conservative evangelicals and Catholics, favor capital punishment, largely for philosophical reasons.  Although many Americans still argue that the death penalty will deter crime, the most compelling champions of capital punishment contend that the death penalty is needed to insure moral order in a society.  Without the ultimate penalty for criminals, citizens will presumably lose confidence in the moral integrity of the government and its commitment to preserve the rule of law.  "Deserved punishment," writes political scientist J. Budziszewski in First Things, "protects society morally by restoring just order.  This is retribution, not to be confused with revenge . . . In retribution the spur is the virtue of indignation, which answers injury with injury for the public good."  In fact, "is it ever permissible," Budziszewski asks, "for a public official to give a wrongdoer less than he deserves?"  One problem, however, is that much of the sociological data lines up against the death penalty.  It costs more to execute than to incarcerate for life.  Death sentences are reserved primarily for minorities and the poor.  Furthermore, there are deeply conflicting studies about whether the penalty deters crime; rather, in fact, there is increasing evidence that in counties where the death penalty has been most rigorously dispersed crime has escalated.  The conclusion, drawn by many researchers, is that when the government enters the business of killing citizens, even criminals, it actually erodes the public's trust in the moral authority of the state.  That becomes readily apparent in the urban areas where the crime rates are highest and where faith in the justice of the police and the courts is at its lowest.  The United States remains the only Western democracy that still executes citizens.  "Basically, it is an act of despair," Prejean contends.  "It's society saying we don't know what to do with some people."  Sister Helen has lobbied Pope John Paul II, a fervent pro-lifer, to add his voice to the international condemnation of state-sponsored executions. 


Moral Maze and Christian Witness

Despite his opposition to the death penalty, Robbins avoids taking the easy way out of the ethical dilemmas in the film.  It is fairly easy to condemn the death penalty when there is doubt about the prisoner's guilt or evidence of the prisoner's remorse.  But Robbins casts steel-eyed Sean Penn as the nihilistic Matthew Poncelet, an unrepentant killer more impressed with Hitler than with Christ.   Sister Helen must minister to a defiant and bitter man.  Neither are Poncelet's past sins glossed over.  During flashbacks to the scene of rape and murder, the director spares us a direct glimpse of the brutality, but the camera circles the crime, catching hints and shadows with a methodical eeriness that imitates the cinematography of Alfred Hitchcock.  Furthermore, Robbins presents the government as relatively benign.  Poncelet is sentenced to die from lethal injection, arguably the most humane form of execution.  The killing apparatus in the film—where convicts are strapped in the shape of a crucifix—replicates the execution chambers in Louisiana and Missouri, complete with a viewing window from which relatives of both convict and victim can watch the prisoner slide quickly and almost silently into death.  Even as she struggles to find her own way through the moral and legal maze of capital punishment, the Sister Helen of the film never relinquishes her calling to care for the outcast.  The film hinges on the clash between her inward sense of spiritual duty and her growing awareness of the political ramifications of her actions.   She clings, despite the logic of the law, to the promise of God's forgiveness.