The film, Dead Man Walking was made in 1995, and was adopted from Sister Helen Prejean's 1993 autobiographical book, which has the same title. It examines one of the most highly debated controversial issues of our time - capital punishment. Since the protagonist of a film is regarded as the "good guy," I would apply this label to Sister Helen Prajean, played by Susan Sarandon, and that of the antagonist, or the "bad guy" to Matthew Poncelet, played by Sean Penn. However, even though Sean Penn is definitely the "bad guy," by definition, my feelings changed as the film progressed with Sean's eventual understanding of the "enormity of his transgression." (Rozan, 17) The story presented in the film attracts the viewer because of the strong emotions, which are evoked by the violence of the murder and rape, but also by the actors themselves.
The issues of crime and punishment are examined from multiple viewpoints - the victim's family members, the killers, society, the lawyer, and a melding of all views within the religious conviction portrayed by Susan Sarandon. Your feelings go through many changes, as each view is examined and reexamined, as the story unfolds with more and more information concerning the actual crime and the events prior, during, and after its commission. The film unfolds with Penn's emotions moving from "defiance to remorse," (Rozan, 17) without actually providing a absolute judgment to the viewer, as to whether capital punishment is right or wrong-good or evil. As Sarandon tells Penn "There are spaces of sorrow only God can touch." (Rozan, 17).
The concepts of good and evil are clearly defined within the context of the film by the parameters of our criminal justice system and society in general. A very clear message is given-the perpetrator of such heinous crimes will pay with his life. This view is not challenged by the film. The concept of capital punishment, however, is questioned, as the "workings" of death row are explained and eventually seen. Penn gradually comes to an awareness of himself and his place in our society by "fighting" his eventual death by execution. You end up wondering whether the cause of justice to society and specifically to the victim's and their families could possibly be served just as well by a life sentence, without the possibility of parole. You further ask yourself if you could actually administer the lethal injection yourself, rather than having someone else do it.
The film makes a political statement concerning capital punishment, but doesn't overtly "preach" its message. The message is provided by Penn's quest for his soul's redemption via Sarandon's interaction. Dead Man Walking's message has the viewer questioning beliefs, which he was previously sure of. Theoretically, you may think that capital punishment in this case is a foregone conclusion, but as you get to understand Penn's character the "black and white" of the case now has shades of gray. The writer-director, Tim Robbins explores the psychological and moral relationship that develops between Penn and Sarandon. "The faint possibility that evil and goodness can find a way of speaking to one another, the dim hope that the former can be in some sense redeemed, the later in some sense educated." (Schickel, 69) is proffered for the viewer to think about.
The "rewards" of criminal behavior result in Penn's death. The cost of violent, unconscionable acts result in his execution. The crime cannot be justified, but the viewer cannot help but try to understand Penn as a human being that has to pay for an act, which society cannot condone or accept. You ask yourself "How could he do such a terrible thing?" Understanding is a tough challenge which is met by Sarandon's character because she will not give up on Penn's ability to understand how wrong he was and to seek forgiveness from a higher power, since society cannot forgive him. We know he is guilty, but the...