By Erica Zaragoza
Is the moral conscience of a man compromised when he witnesses horrific brutality? Dead Man Walking, directed by Tim Robbins, portrays a profoundly resonant character in Sister Helen Prejean, played by Susan Sarandon, as she establishes a relationship with Michael Poncelet, played by Sean Penn, a man on death row. Prejean was a tangible angel who extended herself to the needs of a man desperate to impress his innocence on the world. However, as the story unfolds, this innocence is a mere fantasy he clings to in the hopes of being vindicated. Poncelet’s objective in contacting Sister Prejean is to have a representative file an appeal for him in order to stay his imminent execution. Prejean’s attempts at final appeals are denied, and thus Poncelet is a “dead man walking.” Poncelet eventually accepts culpability and his responsibility in the deaths of Hope Percy and Walter Delacroix, a young couple. Throughout the film, the monster that is initially depicted somehow warms the heart of the audience and becomes a beloved friend of Sister Prejean.
Poncelet’s licentious activities, coupled with his incendiary ideologies leave no room for empathy from the community or the victim’s parents. Poncelet is an amoral racist – proponent of Castro – self-proclaimed terrorist – arrogant chauvinist – and subscriber to Hitler’s beliefs. And yet, these demeaning qualities do little to deter the sympathy that pangs the audience after his execution.
The story begins with a characterization of Sister Prejean. Prejean is from an affluent family very supportive of her vocation. The fact that she comes from a stable home plays an integral part of her dedication to educating and instilling values in the lives of children from low income families. Sister Prejean is a beloved figure at Hope House and throughout the community. Michael Poncelet is not.
Their relationship begins when Poncelet contacts Sister Prejean by mail and requests a visit. Prejean obliges the request, but quickly questions why. Desperation is the immediate character trait Poncelet conveys. Desperate to prove to his mother he is innocent of murder. Desperate to file an appeal. Desperate to be accepted. Desperate to stand out. Desperate to no longer be a dead man walking. Most importantly desperate for Sister Prejean’s help.
During Poncelet’s tenure in prison he studied numerous law books, and compiled all the necessary paperwork to request a final appeal. All he needs now is a vehicle to deliver the request; this vehicle is Sister Prejean. Sister Prejean is asked to utilize the given information to hire counsel and present the case.
In death, when justice is done, do we vindicate those who have taken from us, and let people actually die with specks of dignity? It may never be known if Mr. Delacroix forgave Michael Poncelet in the moments before death stared him in the face, but as the story comes to a close and we see Mr. Delacroix at the funeral of Michael Poncelet it’s clear some sort of forgiveness is present. Walter Delacroix’s father experienced the death of his only son, a petition for divorce from his wife, and will continue to endure a lifetime of pain. Marriage vows rang true for the Delacroix’s…”till death do us part.” Mr. Delacroix finds solace in the resolve Sister Prejean finds in prayer, and so they pray. Together.
Hope Percy’s parents were much more reluctant to accept Sister Prejean, and Poncelet’s apology. Hope’s mother exclaimed to Sister Prejean “you don’t know when you see your child leave thru a door you’re never going to see them alive again.” At this time the Percy’s believed they were confiding in a trusted ally, not the spiritual advisor to their daughter’s killer. This became a paramount cornerstone in the relationship Sister Prejean is caught between. You can never have things both ways…befriending the animal and befriending the victims.
Then you have the Poncelet family. They have been ostracized from their communities as a consequence to their brother and son’s actions.
“A mother’s arms are strong when her child’s in danger.” The dynamic between Poncelet and his family is relatable, and humanized an inhumane character. His regard for his mother is genuine and sincere. We may never know if Michael Poncelet is vindicated from within, but when it’s all said and done he participated in his redemption and accepted accountability for his actions.
Dead Man Walking does an exceptional job angling the story of a murder. The movie spurred a capital punishment debate – profiled the pain of the victims’ families – explained the repercussions on those who are willing to help – depicted the pain of a mother watching as her son is executed – and sought to have justice done.
Dead Man Walking was nominated for four Academy Awards. Susan Sarandon won Best Actress for her portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean.