Wineskins Archive

January 9, 2014

The Scandal of Grace: A Review of Dead Man Walking (May – June 1996)

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by Larry James, Director, Central Dallas Ministries
May – June, 1996

23God’s grace is a scandalous thing. Tim Robbins’ powerful film, Dead Man Walking, forces viewers to face the scandal as well as the personal cost of truly accepting God’s radical brand of tough, compassionate grace. Adapting the autobiographical story of Sister Helen Prejean as reported in her book by the same title, the film Dead Man Walking explores the relationship between the nun and an inmate living on death row in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Prejean (Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon), a teacher and social worker at Hope House in the St. Thomas housing project in New Orleans, lives and works among the poor. Focusing her attention on families and children, her unlikely relationship with Matthew Poncelet (Oscar nominee Sean Penn), a convicted murderer and rapist, develops after she answers letters he had written to another staff member at Hope House. Responding to Poncelet’s request for an attorney who could help him file a motion of appeal, Sister Helen is drawn deeper and deeper into his life.

The gut-wrenching film prompts viewers to react, to evaluate, and to think at several levels about a number of important issues including racism, the shocking violence of the grizzly murder of two teenage lovers, rape, capital punishment, victims’ rights, the criminal justice system, anti-government extremism, white supremacy, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and the role of the church. These themes move back and forth throughout the movie’s plot, as the intense relationship of a passionate, committed nun and a macho, but frightened killer unfold on the screen.

Caught between the criminal justice system, the anguished parents of the dead teens, a seasoned and cynical prison chaplain, many of the African-American residents of the St. Thomas project who take offense at Poncelet’s racism, and even her own doubting family on one side and the fear, spiritual need, and lostness of a person living his final days on death row on the other, Sister Helen stands in the middle and suffers.

When asked by the prison priest why she has come to visit such a person, Sister Helen responds simply, “He wrote and asked me to come.” Knowing the system better and critical of her lack of experience with prisons, he harshly warns her that the inmates are all “con-men” who will take advantage of any kindness. Counseling her that Poncelet’s only hope resides in the sacraments of the church, the veteran priest regards her radical, feminist ways with great disdain. But Helen persists in her concern for Matthew, seeking to find some common ground on which to make connection.

Matthew Poncelet, the product of a “poor white trash” family from Slidell, Louisiana, exhibits numerous characteristics of a dysfunctional life. Proudly racist and politically radical, he holds Hitler in high esteem before an eager horde of reporters. Despising people who fall back on the excuses of victimization, Poncelet refuses to break before the authorities, claiming he did not murder either of the two slain teenagers. Instead, he blames his older, more dominate partner, Carl Vitello. He attempts to convince Sister Helen that “Carl went crazy” on him because of the drugs and booze both had enjoyed before they found the two young people. Matthew communicates well with Sister Helen because he respects the fact that she came to visit without the “hell fire and brimstone” he expected.

Helen works hard for her new charge, even to the point of neglecting her work in St. Thomas. This perceived neglect, coupled with Poncelet’s radical, racist statements to the press, creates hard feelings toward her among the black families who live in the St. Thomas project. Securing the services of defense attorney Hilton Barber, Sister Helen presses deeper into Matthew’s life. She visits with his mother and brothers. But with her increased involvement comes pressure from the prison priest, the guards, and her own family to reconsider her commitment to such a person as Matthew Poncelet. Her mother reminds her that a “full heart shouldn’t follow an empty head. Your heart is large. Just take care others don’t take advantage of you.”

Dead Man Walking forces viewers to move inside the realities of the criminal justice system as experienced by poor people. Hilton Barber argues that the death penalty is always a matter of poverty. As a poor man, Matthew Poncelet was under-represented by a court-appointed tax lawyer who presided over a jury selection process taking only four hours. His case lasted only five days, during which time his attorney raised but one objection. As the movie’s script draws viewers deeper into the issues of capital punishment and execution methodologies, Poncelet’s relationship with Helen grows more intense.

At an appeal board hearing Sister Helen faces for the first time the parents of the murdered teens. Confronted in a prison corridor by the father of Walter Delacroix, Helen must face the full fury of his anger, hurt, and loss. “How can you sit with him and not visit us?” he asks the stunned nun. Reminding her that an evil man abducted, raped, and killed two innocent children, leaving his family with no living male to carry on his name, Mr. Delacroix vents his deep-seated rage. When Helen offers him her phone number to call if he needs anything, he replies, “Think about how arrogant that is, Sister.” Filled with hate and bitterness, the parents who have lost so much long for justice and vindication for their children. During a home visit with Mary Beth and Clyde Percy, they ask, “How can you sit with that scum?” To which she replies, “I’m just trying to follow the example of Jesus who said all people are worth more than their worst act.”

After the review board and the governor deny clemency, Poncelet requests that Sister Helen serve as his spiritual advisor during the final week of his life. She agrees and immediately intensifies her efforts to lead him to admit his responsibility in the deaths. Assuring her that he and God were “squared away.” Poncelet attempts to turn back her probing questions about the state of his soul. Explaining that it is not that easy, she challenges him. “You have some work to do. Salvation is not a free ride. You have to participate. Redemption is about admitting truth, about guilt, and about personal responsibility. Own up to the part you played in the deaths.”

Sister Helen’s journey with Poncelet through the last week of his life moves him to the point of honesty as he discovers that truth truly liberates. The final scenes overwhelm viewers with powerful emotion and some confusion of feelings. Poncelet admits he murdered Walter Delacroix. He tearfully owns up to the fact that he raped Hope Percy. Asking if he truly takes responsibility for both of the deaths, Matthew replies, “Yes, Ma’am.”

“You have dignity now no one can take away from you. You are a son of God, Matthew Poncelet,” Sister Helen declares.

“No one ever called me a son of God before,” Matthew replies as tears stream down his face. “I never had no love. It figures I’d have to die to find love. Thank you for loving me.”

Two final scenes bring the movie to a powerful conclusion. Just before the guards come for him, Helen counsels Matthew, “The last thing in this world I want you to see is the face of love. You look at me. I’ll be the face of love for you.” Then the guard who leads him to the execution chamber cries out, “Dead man walking!”

Once in the room of death, guards strap Matthew to a table and lift him up vertically before his accusers who sit in rows behind a glass wall.. He apologizes to the parents, saying he hopes his death brings them some relief. Stretched out as on a cross, Matthew goes on to offer the opinion that killing is wrong no matter who does it. Lowered now horizontally to table height and attached to the IVs designed to deliver the poisons, Matthew stares into the loving face of his one friend, Helen Prejean. He dies looking into the face of love as the images of the two dead teens appear as a reflection on the glass wall.

Dead Man Walking challenged my faith at a deep, deep level. This story of radical grace and unflinching forgiveness forced me to consider again the basic claims of the Christian system. Like the thief on the cross, Matthew Poncelet lives as a vile, heinous human being who deserved to die. Yet, God’s love and mercy reply. “He will live on in my love.” The message is clear. With God’s grace the price of justice has been exacted elsewhere from someone else’s life. The scandal of the gospel is real. If God’s love can accept and renew a person as evil as Matthew Poncelet, can I really accept it, believe it? What Poncelet received through the hard work of one of God’s suffering servants is exactly what all people need in life and in death, myself included.

Christians fail to heed their basic calling: to stand between the victims of evil and the perpetrators of sin just as Jesus did. Understanding their own need for mercy, true followers of Jesus will expect to be taken advantage of as they carry on the hard, hard work of redemption. Dead Man Walking portrays the heart of the truth of the gospel in all of its power, passion, and surprise.

As the movie closes, Walter Delacroix’s father attends the funeral of his son’s killer. “I don’t know why I came. I have lots of hate. I don’t have your faith,” he tells Helen. “It is not faith, it is not that easy. It’s work,” she replies. “Maybe we could help each other find a way out of the hatred.” In the final scene Sister Helen and Mr. Delacroix kneel in a rural church building somewhere near Slidell. They are hard at work in prayer. Together they battle the hate.

The message of this amazing movie casts helpful light on the essence of the gospel for a church struggling with the pains of renewal and change. Our energy should be spent in efforts to plumb the depths of the amazing grace lavished on us by a God of great surprises. Our ministries should be guided by the radical example of the suffering Messiah who leads us into the death chambers of the earth for the sake of murderers and rapists whom he loves every bit as much as he loves us.Wineskins Magazine

Larry James

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