By Dustin Griffin, Honorable Mention in the 2006 Frank Capra Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Film Criticism.
Dead Man Walking (1995) is about religious faith and the societal issues surrounding the death penalty; the film deconstructs the issue of forgiveness as it is taught in the Old Testament, with its message of revenge, “An-eye-for-an-eye,” compared to the New Testament’s message of forgiveness. Within the film we are asked to draw an ideological contrast between the main character, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) and Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn). However, through the use of conspicuous camera placement, we are told that they are in the same position, separated by societal and physical barriers, yet connected through their isolated states.
Based on Sister Helen Prejean’s non-fiction novel of the same name, director and screenwriter Tim Robbins fictionalized Sean Penn’s Matthew after two individuals from Prejean’s book. Robbins’ conscious choosing of the name Matthew speaks volumes about the theme of the movie as it draws a direct comparison to the Bible’s “Calling of Matthew” which states,
And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him. And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your master with publicans and sinners? But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Matthew, Holey Bible: King James Version) [sic]
In the Bible, the Book of Matthew’s central theme is with Jesus’ morality, much in the same way Dead Man Walking’s central theme is in dealing with Matthew Poncelet’s morality. Sister Helen goes on a pilgrimage into a Louisiana prison to save Matthew’s soul. She wants him to take responsibly for his actions and, because of her belief in the New Testament, she wants to save him from his execution. By doing so, she isolates herself from the majority of her community, which includes the Percys (R. Lee Ermey and Celia Weston) and Mr. Delacroix (Raymond J. Barry), the victim’s parents. Thus, the film presents a clash between the old and new ideals of religion where the parents and the majority of the community operate within the eye-for-an-eye mantra from the Old Testament, while Sister Helen is isolated on the opposing side of the issue because of her belief in Jesus’ statement that “every person is worth more than his/her worst acts.”
Robbins uses camera setups and props in specific scenes to imply subjective meanings. Sister Helen, for example, is constantly separated from men by physical objects, such as a table or screen door or simply spatial distance; this separation causes her to often be in a separate frame from the men she interacts with, thus giving us insight into her lifestyle as a nun. Figure 1. and Figure 2. illustrate a scene with a dual meaning as Sister Helen stands outside of Mr. Delacroix’s house separated by a physical barrier, a screen door. These examples also illustrate how Mr. Delacroix is enclosed from society by his feelings of hatred toward Matthew and his inability to understand Sister Helen’s motives.
The core of the film lies with Sister Helen’s struggles to help Matthew and the rocky relationship that ensues. Camera framing and cinematography become extremely important when she counsel’s Matthew in prison. Because physical barriers in the prison always separate the two, the camera is used throughout the film to subjectively imply intimacy between Matthew and Sister Helen. Robbins breaks the physical barriers between them by his use of pictorial reflection and subjective point of view. These barriers are broken down and reconstructed throughout the film to show the constantly changing connection between the two.
Upon Sister Helen’s first meeting with Matthew, the physiological barriers are in full force, as we can see in Figure 3. and in Figure 4.
At this point, Sister Helen and Matthew do not know one another, and the cinematography represents this fact. Later on when Robbins wants us to see the growing trust between the two characters he breaks down the barriers separating them. This breakdown occurs when Matthew and Sister Helen are having a conversation about different types of intimacy. After Sister Helen says, “I’ve never experienced sexual intimacy but there are other ways of being close; you share your dreams, your thoughts, your feelings, that’s being intimate too,” the next shot shows a close-up of Matthew without the gate masking his face, as seen in Figure 5. and Figure 6 when he speaks the line “we got intimacy right now don’t we sister?”
In this conversation, the camera frames the characters the same way as in Figure 1. and Figure 2. , again showing us that they are isolated by physical barriers in the room and in life itself. However, once they share their thoughts about intimacy, Robbins strips away the physical barriers separating them, showing us their connection.
After the previous scene, Sister Helen informs the Percys that she is going to be Matthews’s spiritual adviser. Mr. Percy does not respond well, for he cannot comprehend Sister Helen’s position, nor does he try. Sister Helen tries to make him understand, by saying, “I’m just trying to follow the example of Jesus, who said that every person is worth more than their worst acts.” Mr. Percy reasons his way out of feeling any empathy towards Matthew by declaring, “This is not a person, this is an animal, no, I take that back, animals don’t rape and murder their own kind. Matthew Poncelet is God’s mistake, and you want to hold the poor murders hand.” Mr. Percy has, of course, forgotten that while at the top of the proverbial food chain, human beings are still animals. Mr. Percy’s assessment of Matthew as an animal shows us another type of socio-ideological isolation that the film touches on, that of humans who separate themselves from their animality.
Directly after this scene, Sister Helen is exposed to strong incrementing evidence against Matthew’s case for an appeal. The evidence comes in the form of an old television sound bite in which Matthew states, “I respect Hitler for getting things done,” and a transcript from an old interview in which he states, “If I could do it all over again, I would come back and join a terrorist group, so I could bomb government buildings.” The barriers are resurrected in the conversation that transpires between the two of them immediately after Sister Helen’s exposure to the material. Matthew tries to rationalize the former comment from the transcript by stating, “I said bomb government buildings, not people.” The scene ends on an indifferent note, after Matthew asks Sister Helen if she can arrange for a lie detector test.
Upon a latter meeting, Matthew has been temporally moved to an isolation booth in order to prepare him for his forthcoming execution in less than a week. Matthew commences a conversation about loneliness. He asks Sister Helen, “You ever get lonely?” she replies, “Yeah, sure, sometimes, on Sundays, when I smell the smoke from the neighborhood barbeques and I hear all the kids laughing and I’m sitting in my room, I feel like a fool.” Mirror reflections are used in this scene to show how both individuals are isolated, yet still emotionally connected. Figure 7. shows how the cinematography places Sister Helen’s reflection illuminated on Matthew’s right shoulder positioning her as Mathew’s angelic conscious, but when Robbins cuts to Sister Helen’s perspective as seen in Figure 8., Matthew’s reflection is placed to the left, in the dark, showing his position as Sister Helen’s fear of a lost soul. The composition of Matthew in Figure 8. is further clarified by Sister Helen’s words during this shot; she says to Matthew, “Redemption isn’t some type of free admission ticket you get because Jesus paid the price; you got to participate in your own redemption.” This is also the first time we see both characters on the same side of the camera; the juxtaposition subjectively tells us that both individuals are entrapped on opposite sides of society’s ideological prism, yet both are connected by their isolation at the separate ends of the sociological hierarchy. Sister Helen separates herself on the higher end by her occupation as a nun. By following the cloth she gives herself an aura of purity unmatched by the rest of her society, thus she is isolated by her one-hundred-percent devotion to her faith. Matthew sits on the opposite end of the sociological hierarchy isolated from society by his crimes. The camera composition and cinematography in the scene also serves two other functions for the audience; it allows us the ability of being able to see the actor’s facial expressions and reactions to the dialogue without Robbins having to revert to shot/reverse shot editing, thus giving the characters a deeper sense of connection within the scene because both characters’ expressions are constantly present within the same shot. In addition, if we were to eliminate the establishing shot at the beginning of the scene, one could not distinguish who is entrapped on which side of the prison, further proving the motif of entrapment.
While Dead Man Walking explores both perspectives of capital punishment, by focusing on Sister Helen’s mission to save Matthew and using conspicuous camera placement to show the audience the connection between both Matthew and Sister Helen, the film illustrates that while Robbins’ may claim an objective viewpoint in reality the viewpoint of the film is tilted more towards Robbins’ stance against the death penalty. Robbins tries to make us feel guilty for condoning any person’s murder, even Poncelet’s. We can see this notion in the closing moments of the film after Matthew has been executed. We cut to a shot of his victims in the woods shown from an aerial shot Figure 9. and when we cut back to Matthew, we see him, also from an aerial shot, strapped to the table in the same position, as one would be strapped to a cross for a crucifixion Figure 10. The emotional effect we feel during the climax of the film is a direct reflection of Robbins’ intent to humanize Matthew. Humanizing a convicted murderer is something our society tries not to do. Robbins does not allow us the ability to dehumanize Matthew; he shows us that even the most different of people can share a connection. By doing so, he points out a fundamental fact of nature that we tend to forget, that like La Grande Illusion (France, 1937) states, “You can’t see borders, they’re man made, nature could care less.” Robbins understands that borders are man made; he simply uses his camera to break down the physical barriers separating Matthew and Sister Helen, showing us that you can find similarities in the most unlikely places.
Dustin Griffin is a graduate of the University of North Carolina Wilmington in Film Studies.