I remember when I first heard that Dead Man Walking was coming out. The first news was that it was a death penalty film that involved Tim Robbins, Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon. I was not very keen to see the movie at that time. All three of these actors are known for their over-the-top liberal antics, and I just knew this was going to be nothing but a rant against the death penalty in the United States. But you see, that’s why you just have to watch the movie sometimes. I’m not sure why I ended up going to see the film, but I did. I was very surprised to find that while it certainly was anti-death penalty, the movie showed both sides and didn’t hit you on the head with its morality.
The film was based on the autobiography of Sister Helen Prejean (Sarandon). She had been asked to provide some conversation and possibly a little comfort to a death row inmate who was reaching out to the church. She went to meet Matthew Poncelet (Penn) and ended up his spiritual advisor during his final days. She helped to organize a legal team headed by Hilton Barber (Prosky) and tried to get him to take responsibility for what he had done so that he could die with some dignity. Along the way she was shaken by encounters with the parents of the couple that was brutally murdered by Poncelet and his partner. Their pain causes conflicts within her, but she continues to fight for the condemned man.
The movie doesn’t waste time trying to drum up suspense or hope where there is really none to be found. At each legal maneuver we know what the outcome is going to be, and the film doesn’t try to make us hope for anything different. There are plenty of films out there that show the courageous fight of some maverick lawyer trying to save the life of a wrongly convicted death row inmate. This film doesn’t try to be that kind of a movie. It’s not really Poncelet’s story at all. It’s Sister Prejean’s story. And the strength of the film won’t be found in clever courtroom soliloquy or in legal maneuvers. There are no last-minute saves to be found here, unless you’re talking about the soul of the condemned. The power here is in the prison conversations as Poncelet eventually comes around to accepting responsibility for a brutal act.
While I have strong reservations about their political rantings, I have to admit that both Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon give powerful performances here. For two hours you can forget how much of a pain they might be personally as they become these two ships that pass in a very cold night. Obviously, Sister Prejean was forever changed by the experience, and Sarandon portrays that to us quite convincingly. It’s no- frills filmmaking at its very best. Robbins wrote and directed the film but wisely left his own feelings on the cutting room floor. He stayed out of the way, which was the best thing he could have done here. Finally out on Blu-ray, this is a fine film to add to your collection.
Dead Man Walking is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at 38 mbps. MGM did a very fine job with this high-definition image presentation. The original film grain and texture remains exactly as it should be. Any restoration or processing was done to inflict minimum change to the transfer while delivering a pristine print. Colors are quite natural. Detail is particularly noticeable on the many close-ups on Penn or Sarandon. Texture comes through in places like Penn’s denim prison shirt. Black levels are only average here, but the film rarely relies on darker elements. Lighting always looks quite natural. The transfer shows respect for the original film.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is rather minimalistic here, but that’s exactly as it should be. This is an audibly intimate film where conversations can be caught in hushed whispers or loud rants. The audio presentation maintains a perfect balance. There are a few surround moments in the prison environment, but make no mistake, this audio track places its focus where the money is…on the dialog.
The old commentary by Tim Robbins and a trailer are all the extras you’ll find here.
For some reason I find that a lot of folks tend to get this title mixed up with The Green Mile. The two movies couldn’t be more different. Dead Man Walking is an exceptional character study that you’ll enjoy whatever your own opinions on the death penalty. The fact that it’s based on a true story only makes it that much more compelling. The film didn’t really make a ton of money back in 1995. It never played in more than 900 screens at any given time in America. It pulled in a respectable $39 million, but it was in home video that the movie began to make the buzz it has today. It’s the kind of film that deserves another look. Blu-ray is the best way to do that. “True enough.”