Weekend Film Recommendation: Dead Man Walking

I was spurred to pick this Weekend’s Film Recommendation by a recent trip to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, which, if you haven’t been, is an exceedingly difficult place to describe. Perhaps you’re built to tolerate the humidity and the sweat that sticks to your neck no matter how fervently you waft the glossy brochure they hand you at the Visitor Centre. If you are, you’ll notice sooner than I did that there aren’t actually any walls surrounding the facility. 6,300 inmates are divided among innumerable clusters, each of which houses anywhere from a dozen to many hundreds of people, scattered across the prison’s 18,000 acre territory. But aside from the barbed fence surrounding those small clusters, the entire facility has no perimeter fence, no high wall, no barbed wire. “You don’t need ‘em,” the guard informs you, “when the bushes are filled with animals that’ll get the job done.”

But back to the Visitor Centre. Next to a trite display that proudly attests to Angola’s impressive history at the forefront of progressive penal reform (you can make your own mind up) is an exhibit devoted to representations of Angola in popular media. Pride of place in that exhibit goes to Tim Robbins’ adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking, which was partly filmed on site.

The film dramatizes Prejean’s experiences visiting and serving as spiritual adviser to inmates condemned to die at Angola. While Susan Sarandon plays Prejean, the film fictionalizes the lives of two real inmates, Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, into the character of Matthew Poncelet, played by Sean Penn. The material is ripe for sentimentalism and metaphor, but it mercifully eschews both. There aren’t any over-wrought meditations on meaning and purpose; there’s no juxtaposition of Prejean’s sacred with Poncelet’s profane; and, with the exception of a victim’s father who learns to find redemption and strength in prayer—even despite his inability to forgive—there’s no high-handed sermon about righteousness. Instead, Dead Man Walking is about two people with nothing in common whatsoever aside from a common history of “living among the poor.”

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When Prejean goes to visit Poncelet for the first time, at his request, she finds the facility as jarring and unusual as any visitor would. Even happening upon death row during the late afternoon after the sun has descended, the fans at full blast stand no chance against the formidable Louisiana air. I’m told that only one cluster in the entire prison enjoy air-conditioning, and it houses twelve inmates (the trusties). They’re not the ones on death row. The others all labor in the fields to farm the produce that will feed the State’s incarcerated population. Inmates aren’t paid for this labor for the first three years, but upon the start of their fourth year, for each hour of labor, they make two cents: one goes in their pockets while the other goes into a ‘savings account’ that they may access upon earning a balance of $250. If you make it that long, it takes about fifteen years. Then you can buy a candy bar.

But those on death row aren’t allowed to work the field. Poncelet spends his time—the six days that remain of it—shuffling back and forth from Angola’s makeshift courtroom, where his appeals fall on deaf ears, to his cell, where Prejean appears the only one who’ll listen. In the times when Prejean isn’t offering counsel to Poncelet, she’s meeting the families of the victims that Poncelet brutalized. Dead Man Walking doesn’t shy from the degradations for which the artifice of death row serves as expiation; to the contrary, if there’s a spiritual narrative arc of the film, it’s Prejean’s efforts to have Poncelet face up to the responsibility of his actions. But it does so without its own independent condemnation, and by affording respect and dignity both to perpetrator and victim.

Even on a tour, the guide rehearses the grim details of the execution ceremony in painful detail. He recounts the measurements, the rehearsals, the timing, the meal, the voltage specifications or the chemical cocktails, the mechanics of the contraption, and the division of labor. The death-fascination paralleled in the culmination of both the visit and the film is strangely totemic. As you leave the building that formerly functioned as death row, you pass the following sign.

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A Dead Man Walking, indeed.