Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Dead Man Walking (1995)

Dir. Tim Robbins
Starring: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky, Raymond J. Barry

Thematically Dead Man Walking shares similarities with Capote. Each film focuses on an outsider coming in to a prison and onto Death Row itself, to make a personal connection with a murderer. There is an effort to understand the mind of the killer – the output from the process in Capote eventually became the film In Cold Blood (one of whose stars, Scott Wilson, who played Hickock, reappears here as the fire and brimstone prison chaplain). But there the similarities end. Truman Capote came to write a story, thereby to burnish his reputation as the premier author in America. In Dead Man Walking Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) does not choose to come; she comes because she has been asked. And she jeopardises her own reputation to follow her religious convictions. She comes to save a soul.

The question is whether that soul wants to be saved. Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) is a singularly unpleasant man, full of rage and hate. He is condemned for a rape and double murder. He espouses extreme right wing beliefs (he is a member of the Aryan Brotherhood and is tattooed with the Nazi swastika). Before his pardon hearing he is broadcast on TV stating that he wishes to become a terrorist and blow up government buildings. He hates blacks, he hates lazy whites, he hates the rich, he hates the police, he hates the system, he hates the government. He hates himself. It is Helen’s task to break through his abrasive personality, to persuade him to let her in. She is not there, as Truman Capote was, primarily to understand his actions and their consequences. She is there to make him understand his actions and their consequences. Only then can he repent, seek forgiveness and his soul be saved.

It is like trying to reform the devil. With his curling goatee and Mephistophelean moustache Poncelet even looks Satanic as he gazes out from under his hooded eyes, refusing to give anything away. But by the end he becomes almost Christ-like, the imagery of the film turning to him crucified and upright on a gurney, about to be executed. The implication is that the dialogue with Sister Helen was able to elicit more remorse from him than the imminent threat of execution. And the film pulls no punches about the process of the execution. The first injection is an anaesthetic designed to relax the muscles; it is said that this will prevent the subject writhing around as their lungs are crushed and their heart stopped. Very humane. It also compares the quiet dignity of those people praying outside the execution with the in-your-face cheering of their opponents. Yet for all that, the reactions of the bereaved families are presented sympathetically. The film does not shy away from the wickedness of the act perpetrated by Poncelet and his friend, or how raw the wounds are for those left behind. For Mr and Mrs Percy (R. Lee Ermey and Celia Weston) it is as simple as whether Sister Helen is “taking his side” or not. By continuing to act as Poncelet’s spiritual advisor they see her as bringing evil into their house. Mr Delacroix (Raymond J. Barry) is likewise unable to let go of the past. However he at least is willing to have a dialogue with Helen. By the end of the film she has taken him under her wing too. His was a side of the story of which I would have liked to have seen more.

From Angry to Cross:
Sean Penn's Matthew Poncelet

While reactions on both sides to the debate over capital punishment are shown, less debate is shown to the role of religion I felt. The Catholic Church is rather like American Express – accepted everywhere. And nuns are almost superhuman. One day they are conducting outreach programmes for underprivileged children, the next they are sourcing pro bono work from lawyers; they can share the condemned’s last walk and then persuade a bishop to preside at their funeral. There is an instinctive cultural cringe before a nun. Possibly the only two that do not share this reaction are Poncelet (who initially only wants her to find him a lawyer and makes a sort of come on to her) and the prison chaplain (who frostily asks her why she is not wearing a habit). The film presents her quest as being to save Poncelet’s soul. But does it matter? Probably only if you believe that human beings have a soul to save, and that there is some heavenly tribunal up in the clouds where, no matter how heinous the crime committed, saying sorry exculpates you from the blame. It is an idea played around with some sixty years earlier in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. I’m not sure saying sorry to oneself or to a god necessarily matters. Poncelet’s apology to Earl Delacroix definitely does matter however. Finally the man is able to reach for some sort of closure.

What have I learnt about Louisiana?
Louisiana still practices the death penalty – or they did in 1995 anyway. Their preferred means of execution is lethal injection, and the deaths can be witnessed by those affected by the crimes. There are appeal proceedings that can be raised however. While there are some people who protest against the practice, the death penalty appears to be popular, even if it is used like a political football by politicians. In general you do not want to end up in the state judicial system, and certainly not in Angola, where the fortunate ones are those who get to go out and work in the fields like 19th century slaves. However, it seems to be only the poor that ever have runs in with the judicial system. It is more-or-less stated outright that people with money can afford good lawyers and avoid prison (this reminds me of the statement in Steel Magnolias that Louisiana lawyers can’t help making money”). You only ever meet poor people in Angola.

From the characters in the film we can see the distinctive French heritage of Louisiana. Many of the characters’ surnames (Prejean, Poncelet, Delacroix) have French origins. Probably as a result of the French influence Louisiana is a Catholic area – it is only Catholic authorities that are seen in the film. The state tends to veer more towards the vengeful ‘an eye for an eye’ Old Testament reading of the Bible than the compassionate Jesus of the New Testament.

Can we go there?
The film deals with the poor, the unfortunate and the incarcerated. I’m not sure any of the places featured in the film would be high up on any tourist itinerary.

The prime location is, of course, the prison. This is the Louisiana State Penitentiary – otherwise known as Angola. Generally ne has to be on the guest list of an inmate to visit… unless you come to see the April and October Angola Prison Rodeos. Or come to use the Prison View Golf Course, the only golf course situated on the property of a U.S. prison. Additionally there is a museum situated outside the prison gates – the same gates featured in the movie.

In her other life Sister Helen worked at Hope House Hope House in the St Thomas Housing Development, New Orleans. Poncelet and his victims came from Slidell in St Tammany Parish, north across Lake Pontchartrain from Nawlins.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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