Film / Dead Man Walking

Dead Man Walking (1995) is an American crime drama film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, adapted from the non-fiction book of the same name.

Matthew Poncelet (Penn) has been waiting to die for six years. He has spent this time on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, having been convicted of killing a teenage couple with one Carl Vitello. During his incarceration, Poncelet has been corresponding with Sister Helen Prejean (Sarandon), and now that his day of execution by lethal injection looms closer he asks her to help him with a final appeal.

While Poncelet is arrogant and off-putting during her first visit, he maintains his innocence, and Sister Helen forms a special relationship with him as she fights to have his sentence commuted, determined to save his soul even if she can't save his life.

This film contains the following tropes:

  • Based on a True Story: The actions of Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, two death row inmates Prejean counseled.
  • Beauty Inversion: While still reasonably attractive, Sister Helen Prejean is considerably de-glammed from Susan Sarandon's usual look, as befitting a nun.
  • Believing Their Own Lies: Poncelet maintains his innocence from the beginning, holding firm for most of the film. Towards the end, though, he breaks down and admits his guilt. It is likely that he purposely suppressed the memories of his part in the crime.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Matthew dies, but not without expressing sincere remorse for his crime. And the fact that the father of the boy who was killed is seen praying with Sister Helen at the end indicates that he is taking the first steps to healing.
  • Dead Man Walking: The Trope Namer, being about a death row inmate.
  • Dies Wide Open: Poncelet's eyes close during his execution when the anesthetic takes effect, only to open again when he dies.
  • Downer Ending: Sister Helen is unable to convince the courts to commute Poncelet's sentence, and he dies by lethal injection.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Matthew genuinely gets along with his family when they come to visit him before his execution and among his last words to Helen are asking her to check in on his mother occasionally.
  • He's Dead, Jim: At the moment of his death, Poncelet's eyes drop open, and the EKG he is attached to flatlines.
  • Hollywood Nuns: Subverted here, as this movie is based on a true story, but the wearing of the full habit is discussed when Sister Helen points out the Pope's ruling that it wasn't necessary anymore.
  • Match Cut: We go from an overhead shot of the teens bodies laid out in the woods to one of Matthew lying on the stretcher in virtually the same position.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: After a gritty, realistic movie, we get an image of the two murdered teenagers watching Matthew's execution.
  • One-Woman Wail: Heard during the execution sequence.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Matthew makes a handful of racist and sexist comments.
  • Posthumous Character: The murdered teenagers appear in pictures and an extended flashback of their brutal rape/murder.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Despite the front he puts up, Poncelet ultimately proves himself to be just as vulnerable as anyone, inspiring Sister Helen to become his spiritual advisor in his last days.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Sister Helen towards Matthew Poncelet, to the confusion of the victims' families. This also unfortunately leads to her being Mistaken for Racist when people in her apartment complex read about Matthew's racist comments and assume that her advocating for him means that she agrees with him.