The film Dead Man Walking is a crime drama directed by Tim Robbins in 1995. Susan Sarandon won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of the main character, Sister Helen Prejean. The film is an adaptation of a memoir of the same name written by a Catholic nun, Sister Helen Prejean, which recounts her experience visiting a man named Matthew Poncelet, played by Sean Penn, on death row.
The main theme and question raised by the film is if capital punishment is justifiable or not. Matthew Poncelet is convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of two teenagers. The majority of the characters believe that this man deserves to die for his crime and they justify their beliefs based on morality, law, and religion. Sister Helen is one of the people who believe that Matthew is worth saving. During his trial, those opposing the death penalty sentence try to aid Matthew in making him appear more human by having his mother testify. It is at this trial that one of main themes is shown by the quote, “It’s easy to kill a monster, it’s hard to kill a person.” This shows that by attempting to make Matthew Poncelet appear more like a human and less like a monster, the court may overturn its ruling.
While Sister Helen does agree that he deserves to be imprisoned for his heinous crime, she does not believe that his death will bring justice to the situation. This belief sets up the main conflict of the film and puts her at odds with many other characters, such as the parents of the victims and other religious figures. One of the arguments that is used to justify sentencing Matthew Poncelet to death is that the Bible has several instances in which people are put to death for their crimes. Sister Helen Prejean likewise, uses quotes from the Bible to show that what she is fighting for is just. She references how Jesus taught his followers that it is righteous to visit people in prison and the importance of forgiveness. Few other characters in the film are able to forgive Matthew Poncelet in the way that Sister Helen is. However, her efforts are ultimately in vain, and Poncelet dies of lethal injection in the end.
Dead Man Walking brings up many questions concerning morality and judgement and to what extent a person should be punished for their crimes. It is a thought-provoking film that sheds light on a harsh reality of the world.