This is another in the long-running occasional series of posts on Non-Mormon Mormon Movies. We have been doing these posts for so long that we might have to change the title to something like “Non-LDS LDS Movies.”
Today we will be discussing the powerful movie “Dead Man Walking (1995).” This is definitely not intended to be a movie about anything having to do with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In fact, the primary character in the movie is a Catholic nun named Sis. Helen Prejean (played by Susan Sarandon).
But Sis Helen’s actions in this movie are so incredibly Christ-like in a stunning and powerful way that I think all Latter-day Saints should be able to appreciate this movie. I ended up saying to myself, “how can I be more like Sis. Helen?”
The basic plot is that Sis Helen receives a letter from Matthew Poncelet (played marvelously by Sean Penn), who is on death row. She drives out to the prision to meet with him. Poncelet is a racist and sexist white supremacist Nazi supporter who is accused of killing two teenagers. At the beginning of our encounters with Poncelet, there is simply nothing redeeming at all about him. He has no remorse for the killings and claims he is innocent. He flirts in a disgusting, sexist way with Sis Helen even though he knows she is a nun. He has Swastika tatoos all over his body and praises Adolf Hitler.
We also meet the parents of the two victims, who describe the horrific rape and murder of the teenagers. The viewer cannot help but have tremendous sympathy for these parents, who desperately want Poncelet to be killed so he is never let out of jail to hurt others.
Sister Helen, however, is against the death penalty. She has a fascinating religious debate with the prison chaplain who favors the death penalty. I think the director Tim Robbins does a pretty good job of being fair to both sides of the debate, but of course we are meant to have more sympathy for Sister Helen. (You may or may not know that Sarandon and Robbins are a couple in real life).
Here is the incredible part of this movie: Sister Helen shows true Christ-like love for this monstrous, murderous man. And Poncelet responds to this love in an unexpected way but showing some repentance and change. At one point, Sister Helen reminds Poncelet that he is a child of God, and his shock at being shown this respect seems genuine. Imagine how different the world would be if all people truly believed they were children of God.
Susan Sarandon may be one of my least favorite actresses in terms of her politics, but her performance was so good that I could almost imagine the Savior Himself speaking when she delivered her lines. Her performance was so understated and mild — but still powerful — that it was as if the Savior was talking in the Church Bible videos. I cannot overstate how strong the last act of this movie is. I wept the entire time.
As long-time readers will know, I am proudly a right-wing Jeffersonian constitutional conservative, but I have also been a long opponent of the way the death penalty is practiced in the United States. I simply cannot endorse a government that kills people, even monstrous people like Poncelet. I think most people on death row should have their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole. And we should do a better job of making sure no innocent people are ever killed by the government.
So, this movie affected me emotionally in ways that some readers may not appreciate. But I still think it is worth watching for all latter-day Saints for the following reason: our Savior loves us even though we are all sinners. Can we learn to be more like Him? Can we learn to love even the monsters around us? Can we learn to believe that all people, even the worst among us, are children of God?
“Dead Man Walking” challenges us to try to show love to the most difficult people around us. I wish more movies did this.
NOTE: “Dead Man Walking” is rated R and has horrific, graphic scenes of rape and murder. I skipped through those scenes, which you don’t really need to see to appreciate the movie. If you skip through those scenes, the movie is more like PG-13.