MOST OF us would agree that a message movie should know what it's saying. But Tim Robbins' DEAD MAN WALKING (Gramercy, R) may be a special case. The movie, which is about a convicted murderer on death row, offers up a liberal-humanist vision of uncommon elusiveness and depth. It taps so far into the primal issues raised by capital punishment -- what it means for a man, or a government, to kill -- that it breaks through the politics of execution and into a terrain that can only be described as spiritual. Dead Man Walking is a bold, searching, wrenching experience. It may be the most complexly impassioned message movie Hollywood has ever made.
Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) is an arrogant young white-supremacist thug who was convicted of murdering two teenage lovers. Desperate to overturn his death sentence, he writes a letter to Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), a nun who works in a mostly black New Orleans housing project. Though Poncelet admits to having been at the scene of the crime, he claims to be innocent. Sister Helen is touched (as are we in the audience) by his heartfelt plea, and she agrees to fight to have his death sentence rescinded. But just as the moral lines seem cleanly drawn, the film muddies them. At Poncelet's review-board hearing, Sister Helen runs into the parents of the victims, who are squirming in wrathful despair. They want to see Poncelet dead, and the movie suggests that for anyone who has suffered such a loss, this kind of rage -- a rage that demands vengeance -- may be a more honest, moral emotion than the compassion that is Sister Helen's stock-in-trade.
In his second film as writer-director, Robbins views his characters with a clear-eyed grace that reminds me of the Jonathan Demme of Melvin and Howard. At first, Sister Helen seems insensitive, almost foolish, in her beaming schoolgirl desire to fight for Poncelet. Yet as she listens to the victims' families, opening herself up to their pain as fully as she did to Poncelet, her stand on his execution remains unwavering. Gradually, we see that her embrace of his cause isn't the knee-jerk act of do-goodism we at first believed. It's motivated by something more mysterious, an awareness that Poncelet, whatever he is (and he may be a monster), is still a human being, and that it's up to her -- up to someone -- to recognize that. Dead Man Walking, which is based on the real Sister Helen Prejean's memoir about her experiences with death-row prisoners (the characters have been slightly fictionalized), isn't a moralistic melodrama. We learn early on that Poncelet's sentence won't be overturned in the courts; the action seems to point inexorably toward his death by lethal injection. What Robbins does is to take the full measure of that death, to weigh it as justice, as horror, as catharsis.
As Poncelet, Sean Penn incarnates the essence of all those cold-eyed intuitive sociopaths like Gary Gilmore whose criminality is linked to their remorselessness, yet who keep revealing curious hints of the men they might have been. Penn's performance is riveting, from his sinewy mean-ass look (goatee and sideburns, pompadour, pitiless scowl) to the quiet, throwaway drawl that reduces everything it touches to an affectless joke. The bond that develops between Poncelet and Sister Helen isn't explicitly sexual, yet it's driven by a current of eroticized understanding. She balances him: She's loving and generous in all the ways that he's not; she undermines his apathy with the lyricism of her gaze, with her search for something good beneath his low-life facade. Acting on an instinct beyond thought, Sister Helen lives out Christ's lesson of separating the sinner from the sin. It's no easy task to play a saint, but Sarandon, in a remarkable performance, makes us see something wild within Sister Helen's compassion. It's her fearlessness, the lack of boundaries that allows her to face Poncelet and stare directly at his scoundrel soul.
As the movie goes on, Poncelet is revealed to be even more of a scuzz than we first thought, and Robbins dares to suggest that dying will cleanse him -- that execution could be a route to absolution. Dead Man Walking can actually be read as an endorsement of the death penalty. Yet we also draw closer to Poncelet (as we did to Gary Gilmore in The Executioner's Song), and as his day of reckoning approaches, the film is suffused with a dread that transcends the issue of whether or not he ''deserves'' to die. Poncelet may be heartless, but he still bleeds; his vulnerability in the face of death is overwhelming. In one of the most powerful moments, we see his naked degradation at having to wear prison slippers on his march to the execution chamber. The climax is so intense it left me shaking, as Sister Helen, seated next to the victims' parents, stares at Poncelet in the execution chamber and mouths the words ''I love you.'' Dead Man Walking says that to know a man -- any man -- completely is to recognize that he's worthy of some love. And that the bureaucratic obscenity of the state's taking a life is that it presumes to kill what it does not know. That's a message to make the vengeful, as well as the liberal, stand in silent pause. A