How do you handle injustice? How do you treat criminals? And ultimately, how do you change minds? These questions, and a host of answers, are at the core of the 1995 drama Dead Man Walking, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.
Sarandon plays a progressive nun, Helen, who befriends death row inmate Matt (Penn), and serves as his spiritual advisor during his last weeks before execution. His crimes? The murder of two teens, one of whom he raped. As Helen grapples with how to best counsel him, he struggles to admit his culpability. And all around them the world rages. The prison chaplain, both victims’ families, the police officers, the politicians, and even Helen’s own parents are all unflinching and biblical in their condemnations. Not just of Matt, but of Helen for loving him.
Wait, but she’s a nun. Shouldn’t they respect her? Isn’t she following the example of Jesus to love thy neighbor. Turns out, most people don’t actually take Jesus seriously. Helen is painfully aware of this, and in her description of Jesus, she says that he’s a rebel, because his love changes things. He loved the outcasts, so much so that the guys at the top killed him because they were nervous. Matt hears this and assumes that he is like Jesus, because he’s a rebel too. But Helen knows full well that Matt lacks true compassion, and that she is the Christ figure of the story.
Helen’s struggle gives us a glimpse into true Christianity. Living an authentically Christian life often leads to a Christ-like end: the people at the bottom worship you, the people in charge want you silenced. So how does she love Matt, how does she handle the pressure, and how does she convince people he’s not an animal? The film tells this journey through complex visuals, chronicling both her own spiritual growth and the effect she has on those around her. The cinematography is what elevates the movie above a mere commentary, because with every shot, we see how Helen relates to others, and how, or even if, her love has an impact.
Let’s start with her relationship with Matt. Much of the movie is comprised of conversations they have in prison, but each conversation has a different visual touch to tell the audience where the relationship is. Sometimes Matt is seen behind bars, but Helen has no bars. Other times, both are behind bars. Early in the film they are separated by a wire mesh barrier, which subtly disappears over the course of the scene. Later, they’re separated by glass – at first there are no reflections, but in the next scene, both of their reflections are visible. And in the final scene, Helen is trapped behind the glass as Matt is executed.
Even their posture and positioning speaks volumes. In one scene, Helen is angry with Matt, so his cell takes up a small corner while she has plenty of room. In another, Matt is uneasy as she questions him, and he stands up and paces a few times – but he ends the scene staying seated, hinting that he’s finally accepting the truth. When they first meet, the camera cuts back and forth from one face to the other. But after they’ve built a rapport, we have a side shot with both faces visible.
You could write a whole essay on that dynamic alone. But what this shows us is that Helen (and the director) sees Matt as a human being, capable of character growth, choices, and empathy. In contrast, nearly every other character only sees Matt as a dangerous animal who needs to be put down. Case in point, Matt’s own mother isn’t allowed to give him a farewell hug, for security reasons. And anybody who tries to love him, i.e. Helen, is a threat. One of her conversations is cut short as police officers take Matt away. The frame is deliberately cluttered while they drag him off; when it’s finally clear, Helen is in the distance alone and helpless.
Helen isn’t weak-willed though. She tries to change minds, to varying effects. The greatest success is with one of the victim’s fathers, Earl (Raymond Barry). When Helen and Earl first meet, Earl has the power. He sits opposite her, but slightly closer to the camera, so as to appear more imposing. During the scene, the camera points up at him and down at Helen, again, putting him in control. But despite his indignation and frustration with Helen, she simply listens. The scene ends with a slow zoom out from their conversation, hinting that his perceived control is being defeated by her Christ-like patience.
Helen is more forthcoming with the prison chaplain, who talks down to her and insists that Matt be condemned, because the Old Testament is about justice. Helen is standing and the chaplain is sitting, so when she insists that Jesus teaches grace, we expect her to win him over. But the camera zooms tightly on the chaplain as he attacks her, and his unwillingness to relinquish his power makes her pass out. A similar disappointment unfolds with the other victim’s parents, who begin on equal footing with Helen visually. They have a balanced discussion, until Helen says that she agreed to be Matt’s spiritual advisor. The couple is shocked that she isn’t on ‘their side’, and as she leaves, her head is framed (more accurately, trapped) right between the parents’ silhouettes.
No matter the scene, the visuals perfectly capture Helen’s inner turmoil. When she enters the prison for the first time, we hear the voice of the prison chaplain warning her how dangerous the men are. But the ominous shots are of guards – the prisoners are playing a friendly game of basketball. Later, Helen’s mother recalls a childhood story where Helen was delusional and feverish, and being a loving mother, she held her tightly until the fever passed. And then we see her holding Helen’s arms, a chilling sign that she thinks Helen is once again crazy.
Much more could be said about the cinematography and editing. They enhance a balanced script that still leaves the dogmatic culpable for their hard hearts. Slogans like ‘eye for an eye’, ‘scum of the earth’, and ‘parents’ grief never ends’ are set against ‘I want the last face he sees to be the face of love.’ And it isn’t just flawed religion that’s to blame. The system has deeply rooted racial and socio-economic biases. Matt astutely remarks, “ain’t nobody with money on death row.”
Matt is the epitome of the sinners Jesus came to save. And like Jesus, Helen is not of this world – which is clear when her cross necklace triggers a metal detector. But like Jesus, she tries her best to bring love to injustice. Though she doesn’t cause a revolution, she does bring closure, both for Matt and Earl. Matt’s final words to Helen are still a wakeup call more than 20 years later: “Figures I’d have to die to find love. Thank you for loving me.” As Matt is slain, we see his body spread out the same way as the victims – one final visual reminding us that he’s just like them.