Dead Man Walking: The Way Film Speaks

Little drives me up the wall faster than the argument about which “kind” of art is better, or superior, to others. This usually comes in the form of “the book is always better.” Yet, we have this bizarre need to legitimize one artistic medium by comparing it to another: for example, when a video game (not usually, if ever, considered art) hits artistic heights it’s usually because it’s “cinematic”; great films are usually described as “poetic”; and there’s even a hierarchy in prose, your book might be fiction, but it’s only really worth something it’s “Literature.” Honestly, I don’t understand this. I rather agree with fellow canuck Marshall McLuhan: “The medium is the message.” There is something absolutely unique about each form that simply can’t be replicated. None are superior to the others, they each have their own language.

In film, if its language is primarily visual, editing is its grammar. If you’re not a film student, or freak, you may have wondered why the Oscar for editing is included in the televised event rather than during the technical awards ceremony, but it’s because editing is the foundation of storytelling in film. Dead Man Walking (1995), starring Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, and directed by Tim Robbins if one of my most favourite examples of the potential for visual storytelling because the film’s central meaning is constructed by the way the film is edited. Due to this reliance on visual storytelling, it’s a great example of films value as a film, rather than, you know, anything else.

Dead Man Walking is based on the book by the same name written by Sister Helen Prejean. Sister Prejean is a Roman Catholic nun who wrote the book as an account of her relationship with several inmates on death row in Louisiana. Sean Penn’s character, Matthew Poncelet, is a composite of Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie. I confess that I have not read the book (though I definitely plan on doing so), so this isn’t going to be an argument that the movie is “better,” but simply how Dead Man Walking uses techniques unique to film in order to build its intent and point of view. The film follows Helen as she begins a relationship with Matthew Poncelet, an inmate on death row convicted of the abduction and murder of a couple, and the rape of the young woman, along with his friend Carl Vitello. As Helen and Matthew’s lawyer fight to get him off of death row, she becomes his spiritual advisor as the date of his execution nears and she struggles with the opposition and judgement she receives from those around her for her association with Matthew.

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For a movie whose female lead is a nun and whose major question about the “rightness” of the death penalty is framed by the teachings of the Old Testament and the (potentially) contradictory teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, Dead Man Walking is surprisingly light on religiosity. As Matthew is adamant throughout the film he was present during the crimes, but didn’t kill either victim – Walter and Hope – but that his accomplice Carl did, Helen urges Matthew to play a role in his own redemption by taking responsibility for his role in the crime. But the last thing Helen does to Matthew is preach to him. However, judgement and condemnation are central themes in the film. Matthew is consistently referred to as an “animal”, “a monster”, “a killer”, and Hope’s father calls him “God’s mistake.” After Helen tells Matthew he is a son of God, Matthew shares that he’s only ever been called a “son of you-know-what” before.

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There seems to be a kind of projection of social guilt onto Matthew. In her car, Helen listens to a religious radio program in which the host berates “advocates of killers and child molesters … opponents of execution” as not having the “moral authority” to “walk upon the high ground” because they “traverse with scum.” But the film subtly points out that according to the Bible, no one is innocent. After waking from a bad dream, Helen’s mother reminds her of a time she told her mother she hated her, and later, Helen tells a guard that the Bible recommends death for many sins, including “contempt of parents.” Matthew being called an animal also correlates with a a recurring flashback Helen has to a childhood memory where several neighbourhood children beat a dead possum with sticks while taunting it. And not unlike Matthew, those working in the prison on death row resist taking responsibility for their own roles in the executions. When Helen suggests to a guard on the “strap-down team” that seeing an execution must affect everyone who sees it “whether they’re for or against it,” he retorts “It’s just part of the job. These prisoners get what’s coming to ’em.” And later, after she faints and is attended to by a prison nurse, when she asks if the heart monitor is the same one used in the execution chamber she echoes the guard, saying “It’s just part of the job, you know.” And when Helen asks if she’s the one who inserts the needle into the prisoners, she defensively replies “We’re not allowed to disclose any specifics regarding execution procedure.”

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Matthew’s execution also serves political aims: in a speech aired on TV, to a round of applause, Governor Benedict is adamant that society must “get tough on sentencing, get tough on lenient parole boards, get tough on judges who pass light sentences.” Matthew sarcastically points out that his execution date was announced at the same time Benedict confirmed he was running for re-election, and that it’s all posturing to “show how tough he is on crime.” Matthew’s lawyer, Hilton Barber, tells Helen “Courts don’t want to hear appeals on death row cases. Hell, you can have new evidence of innocence and the court won’t hear the case. We’re pariahs.” And Barber explains to Matthew that this is mostly because the legal system is more interested in protecting egos: “[The parole board] is full of political appointees, the Governor’s appointees, and the last thing they want to hear is some convicted killer telling them they is bunk.” The film seems to be suggesting that at least some of the vitriol spewed at convicts comes from denial, in the prison employees, the members of the justice system, and the Governor, of, as Barber quips, “their own culpability in the death of a man.” Or, in the words of the Marquis de Sade: “Evil recognizes evil, and the recognition is always painful.”

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Of course, Matthew has been, at least, an accomplice in a horrific double murder. During his appeal trial, Helen escorts Matthew’s mother outside after she breaks down giving testimony that Matthew was “a good boy.” Outside, she shows Helen pictures of Matthew as a child. Inside, the lawyer representing the state gives testimony that “Matthew Poncelet is not a ‘good boy.’ He’s a heartless killer” as the jury members flip through pictures of the crime scene, including Walter’s and Hope’s dead bodies. Here, in matching shots of hand-held photos, the film visually reminds us of the potentially deep contradictions which can reside within the same person. Surely Mrs. Poncelet did know Matthew to be a “good boy,” but he also participated in a brutal act. When he confronts Helen as the jury deliberates, Walter’s father, Mr. Delacroix, suggests as much: “Sister, I’m sure you seen a side of Matt Poncelet that none of us has seen. … must be pretty sympathetic to hear, but Sister, this is an evil man, this is a man who abducted teenage kids, and raped and killed them.”

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While the film doesn’t condemn the parents of Walter and Hope for their anger, it does come down on Helen’s side, who tries to explain to Hope’s father “I’m just trying to follow the example of Jesus who said that every person is worth more than their worst act.” Later, picking up on Matthew’s admiration for rebels (another one of his contradictions, for despite being racist he admires Martin Luther King Jr.), Helen describes Jesus as a rebel: “He was a dangerous man. … His love changed things. All those people nobody cared about, the prostitutes, beggars, the poor – finally had somebody who respected them, loved them, made ’em realize their own worth. They had dignity and they were becoming so powerful that the guys on top got real nervous so they had to kill Jesus.” This pretty accurately describes Helen herself, who by supporting Matthew finds herself at odds with authority figures, by implication she contradicts the Governor, her own mother challenges her about her association with Matthew, and she has several confrontations with the prison chaplain who criticizes her for not wearing a traditional habit, interpreting the Pope’s words “in her own way,” and protesting an execution because the Old Testament condones the death penalty. In fact, the chaplain himself has a very low view of Matthew and the other inmates, he accuses Helen of visiting Matthew out of “bleeding heart sympathy” and that every prisoner in the system is nothing more than a lying con man.

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But that is, perhaps, exactly the point. Because the most courageous thing about Dead Man Walking is that Matthew is actually guilty. The slow revelation of this truth is the film’s strongest use of visual storytelling. When Helen initially visits Matthew, our first glimpses of him are obscured by a metal grate which separates the inmates from their visitors. In contrast, in the reverse-shot of Helen the camera is focused on Helen’s face, rather than the grate, making the grate blurry and only barely visible. In the shot of Matthew, the camera’s focus changes, blurring the grate and revealing more of his face as Helen points out they have something in common, that they “both live with the poor” (because, as Matthew sarcastically points out, “Ain’t nobody with money on death row” – and this is actually the case). But in this meeting we’re also given a subtle clue towards Matthew’s guilt when, as Matthew explains to Helen that it was Carl who killed Walter and Hope and that he is innocent of murder, a door to his right opens, letting in light, and the light falls on the grate, further obscuring his face – almost as if he is hiding.

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The visibility of the grate between Helen and Matthew continues to track the level of closeness and trust between them. In subsequent meetings, the grate becomes less and less focused, and the first appearance of Matthew in the film without the grate covering his face comes during a conversation about intimacy. Discussing why Helen became a nun, she explains there are other forms of intimacy other than the strictly physical: “You share your dreams, your thoughts, your feelings, that’s being intimate too.” Neither of them are obscured by the metal grate as Matthew suggests “We’ve got intimacy right now, don’t we Sister?”

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There is, likewise, an evolution in the flashbacks to the murders. This progression is directly related to Matthew’s insistence on taking a lie detector test to prove he was not the one who actually killed Walter or Hope. Up until Matthew mentions the lie detector test, the flashbacks have been peripheral: we’ve seen glimpses of the barrel of a gun, a knife held by an anonymous hand, the flash of a gun shot lighting up the woods. Shortly after Matthew asks Helen to arrange the test, as she drives to the prison on another day, an extended sequence of flashbacks shows Carl raping Hope, and then shooting both Walter and Hope as Matthew looks on confused and in shock – only, these flashbacks are in black in white. The first glimpse of the true flashbacks occurs only after Helen tells Matthew his lie detector test was inconclusive due to indications of stress. This time, the flashback has returned to colour, and it shows Matthew and Carl taunting Walter in Hope when they come across their car parked in the woods and then handcuffing them. The film builds towards the full revelation of the crime, but it preserves the impact of the crime and Matthew’s execution until the very end by mitigating the details of Matthew’s role, and the procedure of the lethal injection itself – which, up until the time arrives, has only been described, and a glimpse of the table used in the execution table shown on TV is in a grainy black and white.

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After Matthew speaks to his family on the phone for the last time he finally admits to Helen the truth, that he killed Walter and raped Hope, but it was Carl who stabbed and shot her, but the film holds off on completing the flashback started earlier. A remarkable thing about Dead Man Walking is that although Helen talks about the universal love of Jesus, it’s not until Matthew admits his guilt that there is real love demonstrated between them. Compared with the earlier scene where Matthew is clearly teasing Helen about their “intimacy,” here Helen reminds him he’s a son of God and Matthew, grateful, laments “Figures I’d have to die to find love. Thank you for loving me.” Helen makes Matthew promise to look at her during the execution because she wants a face of love to be the last thing he sees, which he does, and right before the machine is turned on he tells her he loves her through the glass.

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The truth of Matthew’s guilt and the film’s moral argument all culminate in the editing of the execution sequence. Once the machine is switched on, the film cuts between the mechanical sequence of injections and flashbacks to the crime. As the lawyer explained earlier, the execution involves three injections: the first anaesthetizes the inmate, the second implodes his lungs, and the third stops his heart. In the flashbacks, aside from the abductions, Matthew isn’t really seen as culpable until the first injection begins, and before we cut back to see it end, Matthew has raped Hope and shot Walter. Bookended by the second injection, Carl shoots Hope. And at the third injection, in the flashback Matthew and Carl run from the scene, and the film cuts back to Matthew as he dies, seen through the glass where the reflections of Walter and Hope look on. After his death, a sweeping, top down shot of the woods reveals the dead bodies of Walter and Hope through a clearing in the trees, the film cuts back to a matching, sweeping, top down shot of Matthew’s body on the execution table. The editing of this sequence clearly equates the death penalty as murder, demonstrating Matthew’s last words: “Killing is wrong no matter who does it, whether it’s me, or you, or your government.” A death matches each injection: Walter dies in the first, Hope in the second, Matthew on the third. But there is still room for interpretation. The film does not, for example, either judge or criticize the anger of Walter’s father and Hope’s parents, nor their desire for Matthew to be executed. It’s possible to read the sequence as suggesting Matthew’s execution is justice for Walter and Hope, or perhaps, after having finally confessed the truth, symbolizing Matthew’s atonement.

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I tend to read it as atonement, but then, I’m one of those anti death penalty bleeding heart nut jobs (for the record I’m very anti death penalty, even for the Ted Bundys of the world … maybe even especially for them). And it’s unlikely that anyone who’s very pro death penalty would make it this far into the movie. But outside of your personal beliefs about capitol punishment, Dead Man Walking‘s execution sequence is a fantastic example of the power of editing, and speaks with the unique language of film.

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4 Responses to Dead Man Walking: The Way Film Speaks

  1. Was wondering did Sean Penn actually agree to have a REAL needle placed into his arm to do that scene? Overall.it’s a well done film.

    • You know… I really don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was real given he’s such a method-actor, but it could have been a body-double. Now you have my wheels spinning… If I ever find out I’ll let you know lol

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About Sinéad Donohoe

A writer from London, Ontario. These are her adventures in writing, movie loving, and general mayhem.