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Sean Penn is Dead Man Walking's saving grace

by Charles Taylor

DEAD MAN WALKING. Written and directed by Tim Robbins from the book by Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J. With Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Roberta Maxwell, and Robert Prosky. A Gramercy Pictures release. At the Nickelodeon and the Janus.

I can imagine someone still being in favor of the death penalty after finishing Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking, the basis for the new film adapted and directed by Tim Robbins; but I can't imagine anyone having any legal, rational, practical, or moral ground left for that belief. Sister Prejean, writing about her experience counseling inmates on Louisiana's death row, puts flesh on the outraged bones of Albert Camus's great anti-death penalty polemic "Reflections on the Guillotine." She starts from a religious conviction -- that only God has the right to take a life -- but she's savvy enough to know that she has to operate in this world. Without any fuss, Prejean marshals the damning facts, skewers the myths, and, with clear, piercing Orwellian logic, sees how we attempt to veil ourselves from the reality of putting people to death. Prejean doesn't demonize her ideological opponents or deny the anguish and rage of murder victims' families, many of whom she befriends.

The most humane of polemicists and the flintiest of God's emissaries, Sister Prejean is the definition of a tough liberal; Tim Robbins is the epitome of an earnest one. He's her political ally and temperamental opposite. Many of the situations and much of the dialogue are right out of the book, and that keeps Robbins somewhat in check. But the characters who support the death penalty here can't escape a trace of being "the other." You're aware that the sheriffs all have pot bellies and that the mother of one of the victims, speaking on why her daughter's killer should die, has a prominent discolored tooth. And when Robbins shoots a quiet scene with one victim's parent sitting in his living room surrounded by boxes of his son's belongings he can't bear to part with, Robbins pulls back to emphasize how isolated and lonely the man is. Emotionally, Robbins is farther from these people than his maudlin backtracking camera is. He's a propagandist trying to make a humanist movie, and his work here has a flabby colorlessness. You know what you're in for when you see a scabbed country church sitting in a patch of scrubby backwoods while Eddie Vedder moans mournfully on the soundtrack.

The movie might have gotten by if the actress playing Helen Prejean had captured the canny compassion and restless intelligence that comes through in the nun's unconscious self-portrait of herself. But Susan Sarandon is defeated by Robbins's conception. She doesn't give a bad performance, but there's only so much any actress can do when the camera lavishes her unmade-up face with adoring gazes for two hours. She's a saintly earth mother, like some cross between Mother Theresa and Anna Magnani for the Utne Reader crowd. When, in the book, Prejean presses the convicts to own up to what they've done, she's taking a tough line, telling them that though they don't deserve to die, there's a reason they're where they are. When Sarandon presses Matthew Poncelet, the inmate played by Sean Penn (a synthesis of the two condemned men in the book), it's so his soul can be saved. Is Robbins saying that a man who won't take responsibility for his actions is a less appetizing sacrificial lamb than one who does?

There are good things here: Matthew's family gathering hours before his execution for their final meeting, all false casualness and choked-back despair. And several supporting performances: Robert Prosky as a lawyer who's seen too much to have much hope of overturning the death penalty but who tries anyway; Jack Black as Penn's oldest brother, pouring beer on his coffin in a final tribute; and the stage actress Roberta Maxwell as Penn's mother, who gives a wrenching, fully physicalized performance, appearing to be crumpling inward from grief, like paper in fire.

Above all there is Sean Penn, whose stunning performance proves, as if there were any doubt, that he and Nicolas Cage are America's finest actors under 40. His Matthew seems to be hiding behind his huge black pompadour and spidery goatee, warily judging Sarandon's Prejean, wondering what she wants from him, and stepping into his badass persona when she starts to get past his defenses. The movement of this performance is an unsteady peeling back of those layers to an acceptance of who he is and what he's done. Penn's progress from guardedness to the most naked type of acting is devastating. There's no sentimentality, no cheap play for emotion, in the shivers and sobs that rack Matthew in the last section of this performance -- just a pure desire for forgiveness and life. The man we see being killed is, in many ways, a man who's just come alive for the first time. Penn has announced his intention of giving up acting for directing. He takes roles, he says now, when he has to pay the bills. For the sake of American acting, let's hope he never gets out of debt.

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