Simple faith clashes with complex reality in Dead Man Walking, the second directorial outing of actor Tim Robbins. A naive, bighearted Catholic nun befriends a Louisiana death-row inmate who says he didn't pull the trigger during a brutal crime that left two teen lovers dead. Sister Helen (Susan Sarandon) believes that her religious mission requires her to assist Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) legally and spiritually. Her actions upset the victims' families, who understandably wonder why she is ministering to the convicted murderer of their children while they're still in pain.
Dead Man Walking is based on the same-titled 1993 book by Sister Helen Prejean. Though its plot might seem ready-made for a formulaic diatribe against capital punishment — particularly given the lack of subtlety Robbins exhibited in Bob Roberts, his overpraised debut — the film turns out to be a discerning investigation of Sister Helen's moral dilemma and her personal growth from facing it. Robbins can't help leaping onto his lefty soapbox from time to time, but manages to step off before too much damage is done.
Sarandon and Penn easily trump Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat as the truly heavyweight thespian matchup of the season. Their performances are intense yet restrained: Sarandon captures well Sister Helen's sincerity and initial inability to comprehend the implications of her involvement with Poncelet, while Penn, who's got the better part, masterfully works up another anti-social character, deliberately not making a play for audience sympathy.
Sarandon wears just a hint of makeup, one of several visual strategies that give Dead Man a workaday feel. Location sets (or replicas) and mostly unobtrusive camerawork also contribute. Perhaps remembering the hallucinogenic flourishes of Adrian Lyne, who directed him in Jacob's Ladder, Robbins often undercuts this realistic approach by inserting grainy black-and-white or color flashbacks to the crime. These convey Sister Helen's evolving grasp of the truth about Poncelet.
Robbins builds tension in several scenes through quick cuts, but dollies out slowly during an interlude between Sister Helen and the father of the male murder victim to heighten the emotion. The manipulation of light and reflection by Robbins and director of photography Roger A. Deakins during Sarandon's prison conversations with Penn, while not groundbreaking imagery, is equally effective. Plexiglas, bars, or screens usually separate the two, a physical divide that accentuates their metaphysical alienation. But Deakins, who shot the prison drama The Shawshank Redemption, in which Robbins starred, also uses the surfaces to illustrate Sister Helen and Poncelet's moments of reconciliation. They occasionally meet literally on the same plane, though almost without fail prison guards or other functionaries shatter what may very well be only an illusion.
Dead Man Walking does require some indulgence. Ploys like having Sister Helen's cross set off the prison's metal detector are just too symbolic and, though not as frequent or intense, Penn's stabs at seduction parallel too closely those of Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. The moral discussion veers at times toward the simplistic, but here Robbins may be taking the right course; especially early on, Sister Helen's faith is an uncomplicated one, and the families, prosecutors, and prison officials likely would view the situation as matter-of-fact retribution. Robbins' willingness for the most part to let the events in his film speak for themselves, and not try to prove to his audience that he knows his characters are lacking in perspective, is but one of the signs that he's maturing as an artist.
Dead Man Walking opens Fri, Jan. 12, at the Kabuki in