Dead Man Walking

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgas..., Common Sense Media
Dead Man Walking Movie Poster Image
Intense '90s death-penalty drama has cursing, violence.
  • R
  • 1996
  • 122 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Even the worst among us deserves decent treatment. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Matthew Poncelet, sentenced to death for rape and murder, maintains his innocence despite the fact that at the very least he did nothing to stop his friend from brutalizing two innocent teenagers. Poncelet is selfish, defiant, needy, demanding, and manipulative. The movie demonstrates that he comes from a less-than-ideal background but makes no excuse for his actions. Prejean is earnest, naïve, and principled. She struggles to show love to someone filled with hate.

Violence

A convict awaits execution for his participation in a brutal rape and murder. Police describe the girl's vagina as "all tore up." The law also seems brutal and unfair as his accomplice, who committed the exact same crime, was sentenced to life rather than death. The rape and murders are shown in dark, long-shot flashback. The execution is described and then shown in detail. The murderer's younger brother is subjected to bullying at school.
 

Sex

The back of a girl's naked body is seen from far, post-rape and murder. The crime is seen in flashback, from far and in the dark, but the actions of the rapists and murderers are visible.
 

Language

The "N" word, "f--k," "s--t," "damn," and "bitch." Racist, white supremacist, and pro-Nazi views.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

An adult smokes cigarettes. Poncelet excuses his actions as he reports that he was high on alcohol, LSD, and other drugs at the time he committed the crime.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Dead Man Walking is a based-on-a-true-story 1996 drama with an anti-death penalty message suggesting that even the worst of us don't deserve to die at the hands of the state. Emotionally intense, it strives to show empathy for both the victims and the killer. While depictions of the crime and the execution are definitely not for younger kids, the complex emotions and philosophical and religious arguments also may test or go over all but the most  mature and open minds. Expect to hear the "N" word, "f--k," and "s--t," as well as racist, white supremacist, and pro-Nazi views. The back of a girl's naked body is seen from far, post-rape and murder. The crime is seen in flashback, from far and in the dark, but the actions of the rapists and murderers are visible. Poncelet excuses his actions as he reports that he was high on alcohol, LSD, and other drugs at the time he committed the crime.

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What's the story?

In DEAD MAN WALKING, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), sentenced to death for rape and murder, maintains he was an unwitting accomplice who murdered no one. He enlists the assistance of a nun, Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), to help overturn his death sentence. The film covers the difficult territory of providing comfort and compassion to those who may not seem worthy of comfort or compassion. Perhaps only a naïve nun could cite Jesus as her inspiration for trying to present a murderer as someone who is worth more than his worst act -- especially to the parents of the innocent teenager he brutally raped and killed. Prejean, whose best-selling book of the same title inspired the fictionalized movie, says she feels "called" by her religious duty to help Poncelet "die with dignity," something she believes he can only do if he admits his wrongdoing and shows remorse. She suggests various biblical passages that might lead him to owning up to his heinous deeds. But he proves a difficult case as he comes on to her sexually, which she rebuffs swiftly, and proclaims his racist, white supremacist, pro-Nazi views in television interviews. His arrogant and repugnant statements, including that he wished he'd been a terrorist blowing up government buildings, doesn't give the authorities any excuses to let him live, and the movie proceeds to his execution by lethal injection, which is described and later depicted in agonizing detail. This and the fact that the full extent of his acts are shown in flashback make this a movie recommended for only the oldest and most mature teens.
 

Is it any good?

Dead Man Walking is a beautifully-made film. Director Tim Robbins, who co-wrote the script with Prejean, sets the ugliness of his death row convict and that man's violent actions against a moving Pakistani Sufi devotional chanting-influenced score by David Robbins. Sarandon gives an exceptional performance as a servant of God in conflict as she shows a man who is seemingly beyond redemption some form of love despite his actions and views. Her emotional equilibrium is tested by her equally empathetic response to the parents of the teenagers killed by Poncelet and his friend, and her interactions with those bereft victims make for some of the movie's most riveting scenes.

There is a good deal of talk about Jesus Christ and his forgiveness and willingness to undergo crucifixion in order to help all mortals be absolved of their sins, as per Catholic doctrine. Given the seemingly irredeemable evil of Poncelet, the movie goes too far when it exploits the visual similarity of Poncelet strapped to the execution gurney with arms spread out to the posture of the Christ figure stretched out on the cross. It feels obvious, unimaginative, and in uncharacteristically poor taste given the quality of the rest of the film.       

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about whether the death penalty is a just and fair punishment for terrible crimes. Why do we kill people to show that killing is wrong? Did watching Dead Man Walking affect your opinion about the death penalty?

  • Sister Prejean has stated that her advocacy for death row inmates has nothing to do with guilt or innocence as she says that it's easy to forgive the innocent. It's the guilty who test our morality. What do you think that means? Do you agree?

  • The parents of the victims respond differently to the nun's sympathetic approaches to them. One couple throws her out of the house for taking the killer's side. Another father confesses mixed feelings about his desire for revenge and his hatred of the killer. Do you think the movie does a good job of explaining all those complex positions?   

Movie details

For kids who love dramas

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