Dead Man Walking
Updated: Mar 2
A couple of years back, it was nearly by pure luck that I stumbled into Sister Helen Prejean’s account of her meetings with death-bound murderers, Dead Man Walking. As she recalled her experiences with them, it unveiled an enlightening look into the psychology of the convicted assassins put on death row for their crimes – and rightfully so, perhaps – and the questionable nature of the capital punishment inflicted on them. Moreover, Prejean’s arguments invited us to carefully dwell on who is innocent, guilty, right, wrong, or even if anyone could be neither. What makes it better is that this happened in real life, making Prejean’s adventures more astonishing and praiseworthy.
In 1995, fresh off the heels of acting in The Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbins translated that story into film. And for what it had going for it, the story’s eye-opening edge was intact here, and the movie had other juicy elements to make the experience even more enriching.
The story, in case some of you have not heard of it before, is about a Louisianan nun named Helen Prejean, who took on an assignment to be a spiritual advisor with a local inmate set to be executed, specifically by lethal injection, within a designated future date. The inmate she ended up with was a young man named Matthew Poncelet, who was guilty of murdering two teenagers, Walter Delacroix and Hope Percy, on top of raping Hope. Having never counseled a murderer or a criminal before, Helen lunged her way into the Louisiana State Penitentiary with firm warnings by her peers about counseling who they deemed an unruly, inhumane, savage beast of a man, especially Father Farley.
From then on, after Helen finally met Matthew, she kept on guard while also hoping to unearth some decency from Matthew, for she believed in the principle of offering forgiveness to the guilty. She felt that while Matthew was indeed ruthless, her further conversations with him left her to suspect that it doesn’t mean he’s soulless. So, as Helen burrowed her way into Matthew’s defenses and offered solace to his family and later to those of Walter and Hope, Helen found herself questioning Matthew’s sentence. She felt compelled to start by hiring a lawyer, Hilton Barber, in the hopes of delaying Matthew’s death sentence, if not canceling it. However, after undergoing substantial trials and errors, Prejean considered convincing Matthew to at least admit responsibility for what he’s done to Walter and Hope with his buddy, Carl Vitello.
This movie may be based on a true story, but it still took some liberties to make Helen’s adventures with the inmates in the Louisiana State Penitentiary more digestible. In the original book, Helen recounted her encounters with not one but two inmates, both of whom were guilty of murder and rape and executed for it. Her first one was Elmo Patrick Sonnier. As Prejean prepared herself for anything he could’ve thrown at her, she empathized with him the more she met up with him. It jumpstarted her mission to address the double-edged sword nature of capital punishment. And her second one was Robert Lee Willie, who was reportedly more vicious by comparison, as he was a racist and a self-proclaimed Hitler worshiper. This time around, however, Prejean went through her one-on-one conferences with him with ease, offering him compassion and support, and with enough experience from her time with Elmo to not fall into the naïveté concerning the criminals’ more humane elements, if any can be found out of them at all.
And I must admit, whenever I thought of Elmo, I pictured him resembling Matthew in the movie. But, at the same time, Matthew Poncelet’s characteristics and ruthless disposition felt more aligned with Robert’s.
More intriguingly, Matthew’s criminal record seemed to resemble that of Elmo. Elmo was guilty of killing a couple, David LeBlanc and Loretta Ann Bourque, and raping Loretta with his younger brother, Eddie. But while Eddie was sentenced to life in prison, Elmo was sentenced to death on the electric chair. Meanwhile, in the movie, Matthew took turns raping Hope Percy with his friend, Carl, and then murdered Walter Delacroix in the back of his head. In addition to raping Hope Percy, Carl also stabbed her 17 times before finally shooting her twice, also in the back of her head.
Regarding Robert’s criminal record, he had reportedly murdered three people in his lifetime, including a young girl, Faith Hathaway, who he also raped. Interestingly, just like Hope Percy, Faith was initially going to head to the U.S. Army before she was found, raped, and murdered by Robert and his friend, Joseph Jesse Vaccaro.
Be that as it may, however, these deviations from real-life accounts do not diminish the prowess and thoughtfulness of what Dead Man Walking has to offer, either as a book or a movie.
From a narrative standpoint, this movie boldly confronted the necessity of capital punishment and asked whether it is the right thing, or even the smart thing, to do to convicts, especially the guiltiest of them. As Helen’s encounter with Matthew demonstrated, he may have been a monster who was undeniably guilty of the crimes he committed, but he’s still human. He’s not without feelings, opinions, convictions, or even loved ones back home. Now that I think about it, though, this movie surprisingly didn’t address the nature of capital punishment that much. Instead, it emphasized the relationship between Helen Prejean and Matthew Poncelet and the grieving of the poor families affected by the crimes he committed.
They say you should forgive and forget, but what I respect so much about Dead Man Walking is that it forgives but never forgets.
I don’t think any of this would’ve been possible without the brilliant writing and directing of Tim Robbins. His attention to detail in the crime and its effects on the murderer, the victims, and their families felt exceptional. It felt refreshing to watch Robbins work up his magic regarding the prison experience and even the criminal experience in every compelling, tender detail after mastering it, even if it was through acting, in The Shawshank Redemption. I can also sense it all in the contentedness that started seeping through between Helen Prejean and Matthew Poncelet as his execution date drew near. The result did wonders for Dead Man Walking and its complementary nature to Sister Helen Prejean’s real-life endeavors.
Its mere premise is intriguing at first glance, too: a nun has personal acquaintances with a convicted murderer before he’s sent to be executed. For me, this would’ve had me wondering, what would a nun do to a criminal who’s already behind bars? Would she try to talk some sense into him? Would she be taken advantage of by the criminal for her harmless nature? These possibilities alone would’ve drawn me into this movie, just like how they lured me into the book in the first place. Add to that the fact that they reflected real-life events, and you got yourself a story that guarantees plenty of back-and-forth banter concerning people’s values and opinions and their place in a debate about right and wrong.
While my mind is still fresh on it, how are the characters?
Frankly, their roles and significance in the story felt generally grounded and sophisticated. Many characters like Father Farley, Susanne’s friend Sister Colleen, her mother Augusta Bourg Prejean, and Hilton Barber didn’t feel as complex as they could’ve been. But their characterizations were so simple yet refreshingly natural that they felt fine as they were.
The others, however, left a distinct impression thanks to their defining characterizations and participation in the debates being discussed.
The Delacroixs looked like humble parents with blatantly different responses to Walter’s death. The father, Earl, was torn up over his death and how their family name would eventually have died with him. But while Earl would never have forgotten Walter despite what happened to him, his wife, he said, thought the memories of him were too painful for her and wanted to stash them away forever, starting with donating his clothes to Goodwill. This inevitably caused the two of them to fight and ultimately divorce, demonstrating the harrowing ways parents would’ve responded to their child’s death.
The Percys felt a touch like a prouder family. They were commending Hope’s achievements in school, and as I pointed out, Hope prepared to join the U.S. Army before her date with Matthew and their untimely deaths. And, unlike the Delacroixs, the Percys grieved Hope’s death together, especially since they still had their other daughter – and Hope’s younger sister – Emily.
Just like in real life, Helen first hesitated to visit the victims’ families, fearing she would’ve intruded on their mourning time. But then, it turned out they needed her as much as Matthew did. Earl Delacroix was the first to point it out to her, and this got the ball rolling for Helen’s decision to visit Matthew’s and the victims’ families from then on.
Their responses to Helen’s meetings with Matthew in prison, on the other hand?
Both Earl Delacroix and the Percys walked into the court meetings concerning Matthew and their children’s deaths with pure vengeance on their minds as they awaited the sword of justice to come down and strike Matthew. But while Earl appeared to have been more understanding of Helen’s willingness to stay on Matthew’s side during the last few hours of his life, the Percys looked at Helen like she was nuts. The father, Clyde, even admitted that when Matthew sassed him in passing about Hope in one court hearing, he was tempted to swipe a nearby officer’s gun and personally shoot Matthew dead. He was that desperate to see Matthew punished for his crimes. He and his wife, Mary Beth, also kicked Helen out of their home because of her willingness to even be in Matthew’s company, feeling she did nothing more than “bring the enemy to their house.”
This leads us to Matthew’s family. As Matthew elaborated, he had a decent childhood with a hard-working father who occasionally compelled him to join him at the local bar. And that was until he died when Matthew was 14. Finally, Matthew had his brothers, including Craig (played by a young Jack Black) and Troy, and a daughter who lived in Texas but didn’t speak with Matthew much. And his mother? His mother, Lucille, was slightly unpredictable yet primarily overwhelmed as she contemplated Matthew’s criminal record, what he had done, and what it did to her and their family. At first, it seemed like she was dismissive of Matthew because of his raping and murdering the poor children. But she later revealed herself to have been utterly broken up about her son’s imminent execution. Pretty soon, she, too, would have lost one of her children, just like the Delacroixs and the Percys did. Matthew was hesitant to have her over, but only out of hesitation to watch her be a blubbering mess whenever she was in his presence.
As I dwell on this, I ought to address the one aspect of this film I greatly cherish: the movie exposed the drastic effects that Matthew’s crime unleashed in every corner. There’s no one side to the story, and Dead Man Walking told just the right sides of the story that needed to be addressed, and it did so with satisfactory results. Most of all, while the exposition still painted Matthew as an instrument of infamy and chaos, it never glorified or demonized one group or the other. Instead, everyone chipped in their two cents on the dilemmas, and no one was wrong for processing or reacting to this tragedy the way they have.
But the center of attention in this entire movie is Sister Helen Prejean and Matthew Poncelet. They took in their predicaments with thorough contemplations and assessed where they stood in the mess that Matthew and Carl made.
With Sister Helen Prejean, she was a conscientious woman who had a heart of gold and nerves of steel to match. I don’t recall the movie mentioning how long Helen was a nun except through the flashbacks on Helen’s accession into nunhood throughout the opening credits. Helen’s instincts about the inmate program, her convictions on Matthew, and her uncertainties over his death sentence exposed awe-inspiring elements to her personality and reputation as a nun, especially one who sympathized with a convicted killer. Much like Matthew’s family, she fell under some unflattering gossip due to her associations with Matthew, from some local folk wondering if she was a communist to the Percys’ outraged reaction to her volunteering to be Matthew’s spiritual advisor. However, through all the questioning and weary tides, Helen still showed her worth by committing herself to the Biblical values and demonstrating valorous support towards Matthew in God’s name. And much like the movie, she never forgot what Matthew and Carl did to poor Walter and Hope. All she was committed to as far as Matthew was concerned was to ensure that she pulled out the savvy Matthew in hiding and left him to acknowledge his role in their deaths.
Meanwhile, Matthew sure knew how to play hard to get. Matthew came across as a distrustful man with a general lack of consideration for the people he harmed in his wake. Once Matthew met up with Helen, however, his conversations with her and the questions she asked him pushed him to consider his options within the last few days of his life. He was on death row for six years, but he still acknowledged that no matter how many times his death sentence was delayed, time was still running out for him, no matter what. Every time Matthew stepped towards Helen or into court, he put on a show demonstrating his thick layer of deceit, brutality, and indifferent pride. Yet, there were signs signaling instincts of innermost fear that Helen sensed was hiding somewhere, demonstrating what he dreaded and, more importantly, who or what he cherished in his life.
On top of that, for all his insistence on being a victim because of being dragged in by Carl as an accomplice, he came to understand how responsible he was for Walter and Hope’s deaths and the love being given to him by Helen.
Now, this is how you portray a criminal! He’s a criminal who was never innocent or framed and was rightfully dismissed as a threat to society but was still portrayed to us as a human being through and through. I’ve seen so many movies, books, shows, etc., that milk drama out of conflicts, but some of them made the mistake of doing so with an exaggerated simplicity from the characters depending on where they lay in the battle of good vs. evil. But Dead Man Walking got it right with Matthew Poncelet.
However, the characterizations, and not just Robbins’ writing and directing, are just one good portion of what gives the movie its muscle, brains, and empathy. The other portion is the acting, which is just perfect.
Everyone in this film acted and emoted with as much down-to-earthiness as anyone would’ve when confronting a tragedy like the one that struck down Walter and Hope. They all responded to the decisions being made with genuine clarity, were all as social with one another as they could have, and their relationships helped the movie display which ones survived the tides and which ones didn’t. I never recognized a good chunk of the actors who played here, but that may be because of how lost I was in their ways of handling Walter and Hope’s deaths and Matthew’s forthcoming execution. And I can say the same about the one actor I did recognize, R. Lee Ermey. If his voice sounds familiar, you may remember him as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket and, amusingly, Sarge from the Toy Story films. But here, rather than playing a tough-talking army officer, he conveyed Hope’s father, Clyde, with the same tenderness and heartbreak as all the other parents who mourned their children’s past or eventual deaths.
Once again, the leading stars take center stage, which is Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.
With Sean Penn, he sank into the essence of a morally complex character like Matthew Poncelet. His gruff exterior clued me into his volatile criminal background and the kind of man Helen approached from behind the prison counter. Whenever he spoke, Penn did so with a tough guy tenor that showcased how Matthew felt about the things happening around him in the past, present, and occasionally, even the future. But near the end, when Matthew finally came to terms with his responsibility for Walter and Hope’s deaths, he owned it in allowing Matthew to come out nearly brokenhearted about not his death but what his actions had done to those harmed by them. Sean Penn was excellent in taking a criminal named Matthew Poncelet and conveying the hidden turmoil and layers that can be expressed out of him.
Susan Sarandon felt like a true knockout in her portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean. She perfectly captured the tenderness, iron will, and conviction of who I consider one of the bravest people who ever lived. Sarandon infused Prejean with a witty demeanor to season her pure and righteous conduct, and even some traces of her accents seemed emblematic of Southerners, much like what I recall from Mary Badham’s performance of Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Local elements aside, of course, ‘multifaceted’ is how I would describe Prejean as she battened down the hatches and approached who she was aware was a reprehensible human being before being thrown into a debacle concerning how she felt about Matthew and her devotion to him, her faith, and the families connected to his acts of violence. Of course, Prejean was already as fascinating an individual as she was, especially in the book. But here, with the local accent and other witty elements to spice up her character, Sarandon made Sister Helen Prejean a noble, fierce, courageous, and irresistible human being, just as she is in real life.
I must say, though, if there’s one element, not of the movie, but of the crime, that I’m a little perplexed by, it’s Matthew’s involvement in his and Carl’s onslaught against Walter and Hope. In the flashbacks that the movie showed of how the rape and murder went down, Matthew and Carl took turns raping Hope Percy before she was shot. So, as Matthew admitted to Helen, he raped Hope and shot Walter in the back of the head. Meanwhile, Carl shot Hope, and it looked like Matthew was protesting about something, like his friend was doing something Matthew disagreed with. However, now that I’m thinking about this, it might not matter exactly how much involvement he had with Hope and Walter’s deaths. He was involved, regardless, and Matthew admitted that he was too scared to speak up or call Carl out. So, I admire the movie for motivating me to assess the details of the crime scene more closely and finalize my conclusions on the matter.
You know, the real reason I was so confused by this might be because of the sentences bestowed upon Matthew and Carl. At the beginning of the movie, Helen discovered how Carl did the most damage, yet he ended up with a life sentence, while Matthew, who might have or not have done as much damage as he did, was punished with the death penalty.
Could Matthew have been given the death penalty because he had a role in assaulting both Matthew and Hope, whereas Carl, who did the most damage, harmed mainly just one person, that being poor Hope? I know it sounds complicated, and I’m trying to wrap my head around it myself, but the intrigue that comes with such analyses is still hard to ignore.
Another aspect of the movie that should be commended is the music. It carried a generally folksy tone whenever Helen’s problems or the Louisianan locations were explored. Other bits of its music, like ‘Woman on The Tier (I’ll See You Through), felt a bit rock-oriented. But again, the rest, like “The Face of Love,” carried a more country-like flavoring, with dashes of soul music in the mix, too. Some songs even felt like they could’ve reflected on what the characters said to others; “Promises” could easily have reflected what Matthew said to Prejean about his past misdeeds. The title tune sung by Bruce Springsteen brought an eerie yet mainly somber mood that emphasized the fear and twofold tragedy that occurred in the movie. There’s even a lovely song by Mary Chapin Carpenter, also entitled ‘Dead Man Walking,’ that sounded and felt like it aligned with Sister Helen Prejean’s instincts more than Springsteen’s song, which could easily have applied to Matthew’s instincts. And that’s just a good portion of what I heard on the soundtrack. The movie had a nice Gospel choir scene that felt fun and catchy, yet the song wasn’t in the soundtrack. I wish it was. Ah, well, whether from the movie or the soundtrack, the music and songs still took me into the depths of Louisiana and the pathos concerning the end of innocent victims’ lives and the forgiveness of criminals being brought to the slaughterhouse.
At the end of the day, I feel blessed to have stumbled across a book or movie like Dead Man Walking. The story was brave and clearheaded, the characters were intriguing and natural, the acting was grounded and transcendent, and its message could not be more crucial. We become so lost in our outrage in response to terrible things being done to others on purpose that we struggle to properly assess the situation closely enough to decide how to resolve it or lay out what’s right or wrong. A movie of this caliber is wise to hold us back for a minute and motivate us to think hard about how we should properly deal with criminals in a world so studded by cruelty, whether by criminals or against them.
Sister, if you’re reading this, I salute you. Your example of human compassion and bravery sets a prestigious example, and your voice of reason is sorely needed in today’s world. You keep doing you.