In 1998 I personally sat across the table of the man who had just murdered my aunt who had helped raise me. He had killed another person, and shot and intended to kill my cousin. I was supposed to be at the residence when this tragedy took place but wasn’t due to my daughter having a knee injury from soccer. As I sat across this man, I came face to face with my own challenge, to follow Jesus example of love or to follow my desire to at the moment hate this man. I found it in me to share with him that I loved him and that I could call him brother if he accepted Christ. It was a hard thing to do but over the years I have told people, it wasn’t nearly as hard as the ability to continue to love him after he said after my offer, exactly these words that still burn in my mind, ‘That Bitch deserved everything she got.” Loving with an unexplainable love after that was among the hardest things I have ever done, but I can now speak with conviction, it is possible to love the unlovable in even the most difficult of situations.
Dead Man Walking is the critically acclaimed film by Tim Robbins from 1995 where Susan Sarandon won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean, a nun who developed a relationship with convicted murderer and death role inmate Matthew Poncelet, played by Sean Penn who was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. This riveting tale, based primarily on meetings and conversations between Poncelet and Prejean challenges the viewer to think outside the box of their own beliefs regarding capital punishment and the role faith can play in the debate. The brilliant direction by Robbins, also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, has a very nice mix of thought provoking dialog and perspectives on the issue of the death penalty and the role of faith, specifically Christianity. The story follows the true story of the relationship and friendship that developed between these two seemingly different characters. The movie now released on Blu-ray DVD will hopefully pull in new viewers like me for the first time. While the movie is some 15 + years old now, the story and debate are still relevant.
Robbins pulls no punches in his screenplay based off of the real Prejean’s book. He holds no punches in letting us know that Poncelet’s character was someone who was in many ways evil and in fact committed heinous crimes. Robbins also does a wonderful job in directing Sarandon in her struggles with not only the concept of the death penalty, but in her friendship and obligations as a Christian in loving and trying to reach Poncelet. She is presented as a real person of faith, with a genuine love, not just for the victims, but the perpetrator. As the relationship between the two characters develop, we the viewer come to ask questions as to the appropriateness of the death penalty, and for Christians, how far does one go to love another.
It is in the concept of loving even the unlovable that people of faith, especially Christians will find not only debate, but likely struggle. Just as Prejean is questioned in one scene about her willingness to support and care for a murderer, she is challenged by an inmate, ‘How can you support this murderer? Don’t you know what he did? Don’t you know that bible of yours talks about an eye for an eye?’ To which Prejean questions the man about the call to love even your enemies and the acts of Jesus. She also brings into question the other things where the Old Testament in particular calls into reasoning the right to execute for things which many would never consider the death penalty. The jailer then responds, ‘Well I’m certainly not going to get into a debate about what the Bible says with a nun.’ In some ways, that is the heart of the problem, not so much what it is that Prejean quoted, but the reality that it is evident, that even if one supports the position of the death penalty from a Biblical perspective, it becomes very difficult to defend in the way it is carried out, especially so when taking the words of Jesus to task with his commands of loving our enemy. Of course many Christians may support and recognize the rights of the state to carry out justice, while also recognizing their own responsibility to separate themselves and their requirements as a follower of Jesus from the responsibility of the state. This debate related to faith is at the crux of the plot and dialog. While a tough and controversial subject, it is one of the most spiritual, thought provoking movies I have seen in some time. Unfortunately, because of the dogmas of many, they likely won’t watch the movie, or allow themselves to engage in serious discussion related to the themes of the movie.
This movie is certainly worth a revisit, especially after recent headlines in America. The praise of such actions has caused many to question the responsibilities of the Christian. Dead Man Walking seems to take the perspective that the real power of love, is not in the ability to love the loveable, but the willingness to get to know and love the unlovable. In that love change takes place and redemption can occur. The Bible is filled with characters that were murderers, rapist, and other less than desirable personality traits that found God, and were ultimately used by God. There are also passages where Jesus complicates things by saying things like, if we hate or are angry at another, then we are guilty of murder. I love themes that cause me to struggle, and while I have struggled in the past on this issue, I personally know of the ability to love even those we seemingly have reason to hate. I also believe that growth takes place through struggle, and Dead Man Walking will help one struggle with their beliefs on this issue.
The only think I didn’t like about this DVD was the lack of special features. There is a director’s commentary but no other features. While the sound and image transfer is nice, I don’t know if it is worth the extra cost of the Blu-ray. I would recommend finding another regular DVD with more features. Robbins in his commentary does bring out some nice bits of information but it needs more.
This is a very good movie, well worth owning despite the flaws. The questions, and thought process, especially for Christians, is certainly worth struggling through. Dead Man Walking is an example of how good movies can be, and the meaningful discussions that can take place, if given the chance.
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