Dead Man Walking (1995)
Director: Tim Robbins
I was interested to learn after watching Dead Man Walking that the story we see in the film is not a straight adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean's memoir (which has the same title as the film). Her book reflects on the events she witnessed as spiritual advisor to two men on death row, and how it galvanised her advocacy against the death penalty. Robbins, who wrote the screenplay as well as directing the film, took inspiration from these events and created the character of Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), who writes to Sister Helen (Susan Sarandon) asking for support.
This approach is a good one; instead of being limited to the 'truth' of actual events, Robbins has decided to use fiction to explore the truth of the observations of Sister Helen Prejean. He doesn't have to contend with people nit-picking over details, but instead highlights the themes of forgiveness, love, goodness and evil. The fact that nothing struck me as narratively convenient, and the characters all behaved in understandable ways with a good deal of depth and complexity, speaks to the accomplishment of the film.
Sarandon and Penn are perfect in their roles, balancing the different aspects of their characters really well. The risk for a character like Prejean is that she come across as too perfect and angelic to be believeable, but she feels like a real person. She struggles with her commitment to Poncelet, feeling the judgement others have for him (and her support for him), and even at times judging him herself. Penn also gives Poncelet dimension, vulnerable in his fear about his own actions. The scene where the two spend the last few hours of Poncelet's life together is heart-breaking.
I was touched by this story. It could easily have been overwrought and too preachy, but the sympathy it has with angry families of Poncelet's victims, and the hard questions it asks of Sister Prejean, give its ideas nuance. It is also nice to an American mainstream film that engages in a clever way with religion, neither blindly spouting it ideas, nor condeming it completely; instead approaches Christianity's professed beliefs about life, good and evil and explores how they act in reality.