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Dead Man Walking

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Dead Man Walking

Starring: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn
Director: Tim Robbins
Rated: R
RunTime: 122 Minutes
Release Date: December 1995
Genre: Drama




Review by Andrew Hicks
3½ stars out of 4

The phrase "wholesome R-rated movie" is usually the ultimate oxymoron in Hollywood, but this time it applies. DEAD MAN WALKING is an intense human drama about two polar opposites--a convicted murderer on death row (Sean Penn) and a nun (Susan Sarandon). For once, a Christian movie character is portrayed in a good light. The nun is a dedicated, caring woman who helps Penn with his eternal struggles despite ostracism and rejection by her peers and, most importantly, the parents of the two teens Penn killed.

Penn writes Sarandon a letter asking for her help and, having taken all those vows, she agrees. At first, he acts the part of a remorseless convict--refusing to admit he committed the crime, telling Sarandon she's lookin' mighty good about now (you'd have to be in prison for quite awhile to think that) and spouting off about the Aryan nation--but Sarandon's unconditional acceptance eventually gets to him and he changes his ways.

Much of the movie deals with the various court appeals Sarandon is involved in on Penn's behalf. Of course, none of the courts anywhere along the line will overturn the death sentence ruling and, as the days to Penn's lethal injection execution get closer, he has to accept the fact that death is inevitable. By the time execution day rolls around, the audience has collectively been sucked into the movie and truly cares for Penn's character. If anything, DEAD MAN WALKING's purpose is to show how even murderers aren't beyond redemption.

Like I said, there are strong Christian overtones in the movie, which was adapted by Tim Robbins (also the movie's director) from the autobiographical book written by the actual nun. You'd think ultra- liberal Robbins and his live-in lover Sarandon, who hijacked the Oscars a few years ago to preach against General Electric, would produce a more secularized, New Age-ized story, but thankfully, they didn't. No matter your religious persuasion, you'll agree leaving the story in a Christian context is more powerful than if Sarandon had sermonized Mother Earth or the life force to Penn in the face of death.

DEAD MAN WALKING has the distinction of being the movie that almost made me cry (and I was pushed over the brink once I learned the concession stand was out of Jujy-fruits). It really is an emotionally-charged film that successfully plays on all our human tendencies. It's an almost-perfect movie from the movie critic standpoint, the only flaw I noticed being Penn's absolutely awful coiffure and goatee, which mesmerized me during most of the movie, causing enough distractions that I missed the entire second act.

Now that I think about it, we could have all done without the agonizing vocal score that accompanied most of the dramatic scenes. It sounded to me a few bushmen wailing in anguish at some sort of throbbing pain, perhaps brought on by dental surgery. It caused pain for me too. Music this bad should be a form of capital punishment in itself.

The movie wouldn't have been watchable without the outstanding performances from Penn and Sarandon, who I'm sure will both be nominated along with Robbins at Oscar-time. I saw the movie about a month after its original release and the theater was still packed, which might have taken something away from my viewing experience, because when Penn's life was flashing before his eyes at the movie's climax, the person next to me's rank breath was flashing in front of my nose. Despite that factor, the goatee and the painful score, I still give this movie my wholehearted endorsement.

I personally don't see why DEAD MAN WALKING has been given the R rating. Granted, the f-word is uttered once, but the PG-13- rated THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT featured the word three times. And there's hardly any violence. Perhaps it earned the R rating for its inclusion of highly adult themes and overtones. Kids may not be able to handle the lengthy death scene at the end of the movie, but DEAD MAN WALKING has a strong message for all ages.

Copyright 1996 Andrew Hicks

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