Powerhouse dramas buoyed by strong acting and affective scripts are increasingly few and far between. Dead Man Walking, with masterful performances from Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn and expert direction by Tim Robbins, is one such film. Based on experiences recounted in Sister Helen Prejean's book, Dead Man Walking explores the relationship between a nun and a Louisiana death row inmate. Absorbing in a way that few modern films are, Dead Man Walking is a starkly satisfying and emotional film.
Sister Helen Prejean (Sarandon) receives a letter from Matthew Poncelet (Penn), a convicted killer awaiting his execution, in which he asks for help on his final appeal. Sister Helen has no experience working with prisoners, but feels called to meet with Poncelet, who claims another man is responsible for the murders of a young couple. Poncelet is unremorseful for his involvement in the crime, and rails against the justice system that will take his life.
Immediately apparent of Dead Man Walking is the high caliber of its performances. Sarandon and Penn spar beautifully; Sarandon as the patient, tolerant outsider trying to understand the situation and Penn as the hot-tempered, racist inmate incapable of recognizing his own flaws. Sister Helen calls upon the Bible for inspiration, but appeals to Poncelet on a personal level, asking about his family and former life. Sarandon is perfect in her role, and never resorts to overacting or outwardly thrust vanity to sell the performance. Penn is equally as suited for his role, and Poncelet is simultaneously deplorable and pitiable. Penn never asks that Poncelet's actions be forgiven, only that he be allowed to tell his story.
Robbins directs Dead Man Walking with a steady hand, and the film is technically sound in all departments. Despite an absence of action set pieces, Dead Man Walking is riveting entertainment for its entire 122 minutes. And though flashbacks of the murders interspersed throughout the film grow increasingly vivid, Dead Man Walking never looks to pull the rug out from under viewers. By spending time with Poncelet, Sister Helen offends the victims' families, who cannot understand why she would side with a murderer. Even after Sister Helen explains that she is not passing judgment on anymore, one grieving father orders Sister Helen out of his home until she decides to get on board for Poncelet's execution.
In the end, Dead Man Walking is about accepting responsibility for the choices we make. In the days leading up to his execution, Poncelet foolishly extols the actions of Hitler and terrorists in a TV interview, but quickly realizes his Faulkner-esque, stream-of-consciousness spouting is a crutch to hide his own grief. On the eve of his execution, Poncelet looks back on his life with the devastating realization that his redemption must be swift and final. Poncelet's final moments with his family and Sister Helen are some of the most powerful on film. Sister Helen must also balance her service to God and the living, and her work sees no convenient conclusion. Dead Man Walking steadily builds through its emotional climax with unwavering performances and direction. One of the best dramas of the '90s, the film is absolutely recommended.
MGM presents Dead Man Walking on Blu-ray with a pleasing 1.85:1/1080p/AVC transfer that is given a healthy bitrate in the 30's on a dual-layer disc. Despite some early missteps, MGM's recent catalog titles have been strong, and Dead Man Walking is no exception. Taken from a very clean print, the transfer is likely a solid replication of the theatrical experience. While not overly sharp, the image is nicely textured, and object detail is pleasing. Colors maintain appropriate saturation, blacks are thick and shadow detail is very good. I noticed a bit of noise reduction, resulting in a few waxy faces, but compression artifacts are absent. The only other issue is skin tones that look a bit too pink. Overall, this is a very nice transfer.
The film's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is not ostentatious, but it gets the job done. Dialogue is crisp and clean, and I can report no problems with distortion or imbalance. The score is warmly recreated, and ambient effects, when necessary, do reach toward the back of the sound field. Spanish and French Dolby surround tracks also are available, as are English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles.
The only extra of note is an audio commentary with Director Tim Robbins. Robbins brings the same evenhanded delivery to the commentary present in his acting performances. Robbins talks at length about capital punishment, shooting in Louisiana and the film's cast and crew. A theatrical trailer is also included.
Fine performances from Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn anchor this exceptional drama. Dead Man Walking, directed by Tim Robbins and based on the experiences of Sister Helen Prejean, is an engaging, thoughtful drama about more than just capital punishment. Contemplating responsibility and human interaction, Dead Man Walking is a strong legal drama. MGM's Blu-ray features solid picture and sound and an interesting commentary by Robbins. Highly Recommended.