An Observation: Dead Man Walking (1995)

This piece contains spoilers regarding the plot and ending of the film Dead Man Walking.

I was expecting the climax of Dead Man Walking, where Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) is executed via lethal injection for taking part in the murder and rape of a young couple, to be emotional. We were watching this criminal who we’d come to understand and sympathise with, approach his inescapable death. However, the scene went against my expectations. It wasn’t tragic like I anticipated, it was something very different in terms of tone.

I don’t usually write posts like this but I was so challenged by this scene that I had to write about it and after some reflection I’ve come up with a theory on what I think the climax means.

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Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) and Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon). 

I think ethically most stories present a black and white view of people. In stories like Harry Potter, It’s A Wonderful Life and Batman we are told that there are two types of people in the world; people who consciously protect others (heroes) and people who consciously harm others (villains). The latter tend to be presented as inhuman, unsympathetic, merciless monsters. We’re happy when we see Voldemort or the Joker die because we feel that they deserve it.

While we enjoy watching villains die in the imaginary world, I think we all know that in the real-world people just aren’t that simple.

No one’s completely good or evil and I think that’s what the execution scene in Dead Man Walking was trying to convey.

After his lawyers fail to pardon Poncelet’s execution the film focuses on Sister Helen’s (Susan Sarandon) struggle to persuade Poncelet to admit his crimes. When he does confess Sister Helen helps him seek spiritual redemption but whether this makes Poncelet undeserving of the death penalty or not, the film remains neutral.

This neutrality is expressed heavily in the execution scene. While Poncelet lays on the stretcher, looking at Sister Helen through the glass as the drugs travel into his body, the film cuts to flashbacks of Poncelet and his partner brutally raping a young woman. We’ve seen short glimpses of this scene throughout the film but here we get to see all of it, in disturbing detail. All the while Poncelet, a flawed character we’ve come to empathize with, is slowly dying. The same man who is performing these horrific crimes in the flashbacks.

By showing these contradicting sequences featuring the same character, I think the scene tells us that Matthew Poncelet is not a good-hearted hero who made a devastating mistake or an aggressive villain who got what he deserved. Rather it says that he is simply a man. An individual who is capable of both caring honesty and mindless brutality. We are not told how we should feel about him like we are with Harry Potter or Voldemort.

This theme reaches fruition at the end of the scene, where we see Poncelet laying dead through the window and the deceased young couple standing eerily in the glass’s reflection. His dead body shows us who Matthew Poncelet is and the ghostly couple in the glass show us what he has done.

As a film, I’d highly recommend Dead Man Walking because compared to most pieces I’ve seen with their black and white ideologies, this scene stuck out to me as an honest and balanced representation of human nature and I think that’s something many artists don’t usually present.

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