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Film / Dead Man Walking

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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 his friend 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, asks her to help him with a final appeal.

While Matthew is arrogant and off-putting during Sister Helen's first visit, he maintains his innocence, and 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:

  • Accidental Murder: Throughout the film, Matthew claims that this was the case with Walter and Hope before Sister Helen calls him out on it.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: When discussing where to bury Matt with a fellow nun, Sister Helen is informed that he'll be buried next to a late sister who took great pride in her celibacy. They both chuckle when Sister Helen realizes, "She's gonna be lying next to [a man] for all eternity."
  • As the Good Book Says...: At one point, the warden and Sister Helen get in a debate about whether or not the Bible condones the death penalty for murderers. The warden folds early by stating "I'm not gonna get in a Bible-quoting contest with a nun, because I know I'm gonna lose."
  • Based on a True Story: The film is based on the actions of Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, two death row inmates the real Sister Helen Prejean counseled.
    • The crimes themselves are this as well. The murders of Walter Delacroix and Hope Percy are based on the real-life deaths of Loretta Ann Bourque, David LeBlanc, and Faith Hathaway.
  • 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: Matthew 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 crimes.
    • Earl Delacroix, the father of the boy who was killed, is seen praying with Sister Helen at the end of the film, indicating that he is taking the first steps to heal.
    • While the parents both had their wish seeing Matthew executed, technically the Percys never got justice as Matthew didn't actually kill their daughter while Carl Vintello did, though Matthew did rape her. And the Percys will likely go their grave never knowing Carl was the actual murderer.
    • While both Matthew and Carl both got punished for the murders of Walter and Hope, Matthew unfortunately got the worse deal by dying while Carl gets life in prison.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: The film presents a fairly even-handed look at capital punishment.
  • The Cameo: The real Sister Helen appears as an extra in a candlelight vigil protesting the death penalty.
  • Children Are Innocent: It's strongly implied Troy is oblivious his elder brother Matthew is going to be die and won't see him again.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Walter and Hope's murders can be considered this. After being dragged from their car by Carl and Matt, Walter was held at gunpoint while the men took turns raping Hope. Carl then proceeded to stab her seventeen times while Walter screamed for him to stop, prompting Matt to shoot him in the back of the head. As if that wasn't bad enough, when Hope tried to crawl towards Walter, Carl shot her in the head as well.
  • Dead Man Walking: The Trope Namer, being about a death row inmate.
  • Death Row: The setting of much of the film.
  • Dies Wide Open: Matthew's eyes close during his execution when the anesthetic takes effect, only to open again when he dies.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Matthew genuinely gets along with his family when they come to visit before his execution, and some of his last words to Sister Helen are asking her to check in on his mother occasionally.
  • Flashback: There are multiple brief ones scattered throughout the film before a final extended one at the end depicting the couple's brutal murder.
  • Foregone Conclusion: It's clear from the start that Matthew is going to die, regardless of what Sister Helen does. Much of the plot revolves around getting him to express remorse before he does.
  • Foreshadowing: While meeting the parents of Hope, Helen also meets Emily who is strongly implied to be Hope’s little sister. Her losing Hope as a sibling foreshadows Lucille’s other boys also losing Matthew their eldest brother to execution.
  • Gallows Humour: Matthew jokes to Helen he never had shrimp before stating it is pretty good, particularly as it is the last thing he will ever eat before facing his demise also better known as the "last meal."
  • Good Parents: Both the Delacroix's and Percy's were very loving parents to Walter and Hope and are absolutely devastated by their deaths.
  • Grief-Induced Split: Earl Delacroix reveals at a support group for parents of murdered children that his wife filed for divorce due to differing ways of grieving their son's death.
  • He's Dead, Jim: At the moment of his death, Poncelet's eyes drop open, and the EKG he is attached to flatlines.
  • High-School Sweethearts: Walter and Hope prior to their deaths.
  • 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.
  • Hope Spot: The warden near the end of the film walks towards Matthew's cell and both Matthew and Helen wait for the final verdict but instead of good news, the warden informs Matthew his final appeal has been turned down and will be executed as scheduled. The warden's face before informing Matthew already implied the bad news.
    • Also applies to Clyde and Mary Beth Percy, who briefly considered that the reason that Hope and Walter didn't come home that night is that they might have run away to get married.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Averted. The parents of the two victims had every right to want Matthew executed, even if it means Lucille (Matthew's mother) loses her son because, in their eyes, it is justice.
  • Innocently Insensitive: Twice in the film:
    • Helen while sympathetic towards the Percys causes Hope’s parents to suffer further heartbreak after admitting she is siding with Matthew by being there for him at his execution as his spiritual advisor. Understandably the parents furiously chew her out and declare her as an enemy for supporting him.
    • Lucille, Matthew’s mother let’s slip to her son that people are talking about his funeral and she angrily tells them he isn’t dead yet. Matthew is obviously hurt what his mother just said and she realises she said something that came out wrong causing the chattering the family had to suddenly switch off and into awkward silence. Matthew though does a good job not showing his hurt emotions to his own mother.
  • Last of His Kind: Earl Delacroix tells Helen that, due to Matt's actions, he is the last Delacroix and the family name will die with him. Helen is clearly taken aback by this. The same can apply for Emily who is strongly implied to be Hope’s little sister as she is the last sibling left in the Hope family.
  • 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.
  • Never My Fault: Matthew refuses to take responsibility for his involvement in the murders of Walter and Hope, claiming he was on drugs, that Carl was the one who killed them, and that the kids shouldn't have been in the woods in the first place. However, when he is told by the warden that his final appeal failed, he comes clean to Sister Helen before he dies.
  • Nice Girl: Helen is kind, compassionate, caring, and sincerely believes that Matt isn't beyond redemption. She grew up in a wealthy house with loving parents and became a nun because she felt obligated to give back for all her good fortune.
  • One-Woman Wail: Heard on the soundtrack during the execution and flashback sequence.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Happens to both the Percys and Delacroixs and played for truly heartbreaking effect, even leading to Earl Delacroix's wife to file for divorce. Later happens to Matthew's mother.
  • Parting-Words Regret: Just before she left for her date with Walter, Hope's mother noticed that the hem of her dress had come loose and pinned it for her. Years later, it haunts her that the last words exchanged with her daughter were something so mundane.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: The families of Walter and Hope want Matthew to be executed because of his role in the brutal deaths of their children, while Helen and the other nuns do not believe in the death penalty.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Matthew publicly makes a handful of racist and sexist comments, along with an interview in which he defends Hitler. He later expresses regret to Helen for saying these things.
  • Posthumous Character: The murdered teenagers, Walter Delacroix and Hope Percy, appear in pictures and an extended flashback of their brutal rape and murder.
  • Prisoner's Last Meal: Matthew Poncelet has shrimp, prior to his execution by lethal injection. He jokes that he's never had shrimp before, and finds it to be "pretty good," considering it is the last thing he's ever going to eat.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Matt and his partner Carl brutally raped Hope before killing her.
  • Shout-Out: According to Mr Percy his daughter Hope was in the army. R Lee Emery who played the dad was a commanding officer himself in real life and he was also known for his roles as Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket and iconically voiced Sarge in Toy Story which came out the same year as this film.
  • Tattooed Crook: Matthew has a variety of tattoos on his arms.
  • Terror at Make-Out Point: Matthew and Carl approached Walter and Hope while they were parked in his car.
  • The Last Thing You Ever See: A rare benevolent version. Sister Helen tells Matthew to look at her when he's executed, so that the last thing he sees is "a face of love."
  • Title Drop: A guard calls out "dead man walking" as Matthew is escorted to the death chamber.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Sister Helen gives Matthew several versions of these prior to his execution to force him to come to terms with his role in the murders.
  • Too Happy to Live: Hope had graduated from high school and was murdered the night before she was going to leave to join the Air Force.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Initially an arrogant and unrepentant man, Matthew Poncelet's relationship with Sister Helen humanizes him significantly. By the end of the film, he shows genuine remorse for his crimes and tearfully tells the victims' families that he hopes his death can bring them closure.
  • Truth in Television: When Sister Helen accompanies Earl Delacroix to a support group for parents of murdered children, he shares that his wife filed for divorce because they had different ways of dealing with their son's death. Unfortunately, this happens all too often to parents who lose a child.
  • You Leave Him Alone!: "Her", rather. In the flashback depicting the teenage couple's murder, Walter futilely screams this as Matthew and Carl take turns raping Hope.