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Dead Man Walking(1995)
A nun, while comforting a convicted killer on death row, empathizes with both the killer and his victim's families.
For more about Dead Man Walking and the Dead Man Walking Blu-ray release, see Dead Man Walking Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on February 3, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky, Raymond J. Barry, R. Lee Ermey, Celia Weston
Director: Tim Robbins
» See full cast & crew
Dead Man Walking Blu-ray Review
Sarandon and Penn give tour de force performances in Tim Robbins' amazing film based on a real life nun's memoirs.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, February 3, 2011
Humans come with a perhaps genetic propensity which enables them to compartmentalize their own mortality, as if their impending doom is some abstract concept that doesn't really apply to them individually. Sure, others are dropping like flies, but that doesn't mean. . .does it? That strange sanguinity isn't an option for those incarcerated on Death Row in our nation's prisons, as they're confronted by imminent death virtually every day, and they get sporadic examples of just how real that imminence is when individual "colleagues" are marched off from time to time to say hello to a lethal injection or the electric chair. Nine times out of ten, the "denial" gene in these people tends to get shifted to why their death is imminent, namely, that they're innocent of whatever crime they've been found guilty of committing, and that their execution is therefore unjust. Dead Man Walking visits all of these ideas, and a good many others besides, including redemption, salvation, forgiveness, and the relationship between about the oddest figurative bedfellows in modern film history. Oscar winner Susan Sarandon portrays Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun in Louisiana who strikes up a halting friendship with convicted killer Matthew Poncelet (Academy Award nominated Sean Penn), an emotionally barren young man who initially at least refuses to admit he's responsible for the double murder and rape of a young couple for which he's been sentenced to death.
Based on the real Sister Helen Prejean's memoirs, Dead Man Walking slightly fictionalizes events (the Poncelet character is actually an amalgamation of two real life inmates whom Prejean counseled and aided) but which, under the startlingly effective leadership of Tim Robbins, who both wrote and directed the film, evinces a true to life ambience which is both disturbing and charged with emotion. Prejean slowly begins to crack open Poncelet's façade, uncovering the wounded, vulnerable soul inside of an arrogant, strutting shell. Prejean herself begins her journey as an admittedly naïve woman entering the lion's den of Death Row at Louisiana State Penitentiary, suddenly thrust into a maelstrom of violence and almost half-human (if even half) men with no hope and literally nothing to live for. Of course Prejean traffics in hope and the chance for salvation, and these two seemingly disparate elements are at the heart of Dead Man Walking.
Some have accused Robbins of crafting an anti-death penalty screed with this film, but the fact is Prejean herself is one of the most stalwart advocates urging repeal of what she sees as a barbaric and anti-Christian practice. But really the film is much deeper than even this complex issue. The core of the film is the burgeoning relationship between Prejean and Poncelet, as Prejean agrees to help Poncelet with his final appeal in an attempt to stave off lethal injection. It's the slow dance of opposites who manage to reach out and touch each other, despite a grilled glass wall between them, that is really the core of Dead Man Walking, despite its obvious subtext of a woman deeply committed to helping prevent the execution of even a man who seems to be remorseless and without much human emotion.
Dead Man Walking is a film which depends utterly on its performances, and Robbins elicits two of the most unflinching and real feeling portrayals in the annals of recent film. This is a project which easily could have devolved into maudlin histrionics, but Sarandon and Penn walk such a finely taut tightrope here that there's virtually no false step or indeed false emotion. Sarandon and Penn have always been two of the most unusual movie stars in recent memory. Sarandon was never really a raging beauty thrust into ingénue roles. Even her earliest work in films like Joe depended more on her incipient intelligence than anything else. Similarly, Penn has never really fit into the dashing leading man category, and indeed he doesn't even really match the post-Hoffman image of what a male star is. His often glowering, simmering emotionalism has enabled him to play one unusual character after another, and he's an amazing chameleon who seems to fully inhabit whatever roles he tackles. Both of these inestimable performers have probably never done better work than they do here in Dead Man Walking, and watching the two of them on screen together is like taking a Master's Class in modern, understated film performance technique. Notable supporting turns by R. Lee Ermey, Celia Weston and Raymond J. Barry as the parents of the victims are also viscerally effective.
But the major kudos here, despite the awards and nominations showered on the stars, belong to Tim Robbins. Robbins, who seemingly employed half his family on this project, brings a finely tuned ear to his screenplay and a firmly developed hand to his direction. Dead Man Walking wastes no beats, there's no filler here, and everything moves inexorably to its devastatingly emotional conclusion. Robbins in fact seems to undercut the very screed he's been accused of making by showing that there can be forgiveness and salvation, no matter what the odds. Nowhere is Robbins' directorial skill more in evidence than in the anguished sequence where Poncelet meets his fate. Robbins intercuts huge, screen filling images of Sarandon's and Penn's eyes, along with nightmarish visions of the crime which got Poncelet into his predicament. It's a riveting sequence, brilliantly conceived and wonderfully edited by Lisa Zeno Churgin and Ray Hubley.
The film also benefits from an extremely unusual score which combines some improbably elements. It's hard to imagine a more unlikely beginning than scenes of rural Louisiana set to the sounds of tables and an Indian drone, soon joined by the evocative vocals of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the iconic Pakistani musician, and yet it works absolutely perfectly. Robbins' brother David provides the more "typical" underscore elements, but the film is filled with often surprising source cues, and also contains a wonderful closing (and Oscar nominated) turn by Bruce Springsteen.
Dead Man Walking is an uncompromising and thought provoking piece of filmmaking that may indeed have screed-like elements lurking not very far beneath its turbulent surface. The fact that it actually doesn't depend on those very elements for the brunt of its emotional power is testament not just to Prejean's real life story (however it may have been fictionalized for the film itself), but also to Robbins' inerrant sense as a writer and director that the focus of the story is really the relationship between the nun and the convict. Dead Man Walking proves that, in Prejean's own words, forgiveness and a path out of hatred can't just be based on faith, it takes hard work.
Dead Man Walking Blu-ray, Video Quality
Truth be told, none of these new (initial) Best Buy exclusives of catalog product from MGM-UA and other studios have looked downright spectacular in their Blu-ray releases, and this film is no exception. The good news is that Dead Man Walking looks better than most, perhaps because of its relatively recent vintage, with an AVC encoded 1080p image in 1.78:1. Though there appears to have been some moderate DNR applied to the transfer, overall we have a very nice looking, if not super-sharp, image that has a wealth of well saturated color and a pleasing amount of fine detail. Some of the lower contrast shots reveal a somewhat excessive amount of grain, which one or two times gets toward digital noise levels. There are also some very minor shimmer issues on some of the low contrast wooded scenes, typically the flashback material to the night of the crime.
Dead Man Walking Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Dead Man Walking's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix may not be overwhelmingly immersive, but it's extremely effective and sports excellent fidelity. Surrounds are used for the wonderful underscore and source cues, and also kick in in some of the ambient effects, notably some of the rural segments and, perhaps more frighteningly, the awful recreation of the murder scene. Dialogue is well positioned and clearly presented. There's not a lot of discrete channel usage or directionality with these elements, but a lot of the film is spent in close-ups of one or two people speaking, so it's probably not to be expected. This is a restrained but quietly impressive track that gets the job done very well within the confines and context of the film's scope.
Dead Man Walking Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Dead Man Walking Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Put aside however you personally may feel about the death penalty and watch Dead Man Walking simply for the amazing portrayal of two disparate souls which it so unflinchingly offers. Rarely has a film packed this much wallop in such an understated and restrained manner. Sarandon and Penn have never been better, and that's saying a lot, and Tim Robbins' writing and direction are simply brilliant. Highly Recommended.
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