I was just about to go to bed last night when I found that Dead Man Walking was on tv. I hadn’t seen it again since it first came out in 1995, and though it had already started I finished up watching more than three-quarters of it again.
What an emotionally-charged movie it is. Sean Penn gives the performance of a life-time, making us alternatively like and dislike this arrogant, young man who’s gone along with the disruptive antics of an older man whom he admires, and finishes up raping a young woman and killing her boyfriend to impress him. Even though he was 35 at the time the film was released, he is more than credible as a young man in his early twenties.
Susan Sarandon’s performance is more subtle, and a great deal is conveyed by her expression rather than her speech, but it’s far superior to many of the performances she’s given subsequently.
The Christian aspect of it, for once, isn’t made a fool of. Tim Robbins, as director and writer, could have made the priest who counsels Sister Helen into one of those caricatured religious beings who pervade many movies over the last two or three decades. Instead, he shows a man who is struggling to see the right way through a difficult situation.
But the three other outstanding performances are those of Raymond Barry as the father of the boy who’s been killed, and Lee Ermey and Celia Weston as the parents of the raped and murdered girl. These three must have revelled in the space Robbins gives them to give depth to their characters. We swing from sympathy to irritation to anger to sympathy again as we watch them relate their stories to Sister Jean – who isn’t always the most sympathetic of listeners herself.
And talking of space, you never feel as though this story is hurried in any way. There isn’t that rush cutting so typical of modern movies, where one scene is barely over before another one is shoving its way in.
One other performance should be mentioned: Roberta Maxwell as Penn’s mother. She could easily have gone over the top, since she’s a woman given to bursting into tears. Instead we have to face with her the fact that somehow she’s brought up a ‘monster’ and her bewilderment as to how this could have happened, and we are glad to see Sister Jean holding her in the worst moments, as that’s what we’d all want to have done.
Couple of bits of trivia: Jack Black has a relatively small role in it, as Penn’s brother, and there’s a popular indie-band in The Netherlands called "Seanpenn".