When critics talk about the great actors of American cinema, their opinions are often based on not upsetting the critical status quo--De Niro is a chameleon, Pacino a sizzling stick of dynamite, yadda yadda yadda.
Forget what you've been told--compared to Sean Penn, De Niro is an anemic bore who's stuck in a generic-gangster spiral, and Pacino emotes in a tedious vacuum that ignores his fellow performers. Depending on the role (and, unfortunately, the level of national publicity accorded to it), Penn is better than both of them.
Penn may be the most unnervingly authentic actor working in American cinema today, a man who drowns himself in the psychology of losers and reprobates but shows little, if any, effort in the struggle. Most performers who specialize in playing weirdos are compelled by some inexplicable internal logic to deck their characters in all manner of physical affectations. Penn is almost entirely without mannerism: He lets his pencil-pointy eyes do all the talking, and they are lethal instruments when it comes to expressing a tangle of sorrow and malice.
All that can be said of Penn's performance in writer-director Tim Robbins' adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean's nonfiction lament, Dead Man Walking.
Robbins, who's no slouch in the acting department himself (if he worked at it, he could be the closest equivalent to Jimmy Stewart in contemporary pop cinema), wrote and directed the disappointing 1992 political satire, Bob Roberts, in the process earning himself and partner Susan Sarandon the reputation of crusading Yber-liberals in a town full of opportunistic humanitarians.
If there is a bleeding heart at the center of Dead Man Walking, which explores the psychological impact of capital punishment from top to bottom, Robbins has mopped up the evidence. Perhaps mindful of his leftist reputation, he adapted the true story of death-row activist Sister Helen Prejean (played with poetic weariness by Sarandon). In the book, Prejean becomes the confidante of two doomed inmates; for the film version, Robbins has created a single character that is at once angelic and evil, wounded and monstrous (the incomparable Penn).
Perhaps the biggest coup scored by Dead Man Walking is how Robbins adapts Prejean's rambling observations about the moral inconsistencies of caring for a killer with a cinematic technique that is at once static and suspenseful. Prejean admitted that her own humanitarian outrage at the classist, racist death penalty was severely compromised by meeting the families of victims--people who were forced to live not only with the memories of slain loved ones, but with the nightmares of their loved ones' final, horrific moments.
Robbins respects the stories of the victims and the perpetrators without condescending to either. He pulls off this dangerous balancing act because the film stays firmly within the conflicted heart of Prejean.
To her credit, Sarandon never strives for powerhouse pitch in the film; Dead Man Walking benefits less from her virtuosity than her restraint. She is at once the movie's conscience and its passive witness, maneuvering with poignant clumsiness through the painful thickets of lives that can never, in any real sense, enjoy justice.
In a move reminiscent of Jonathan Kaplan's chilling rape drama, The Accused, director Robbins places the consequences before the crime. He lets us hear all the stories before witnessing the chillingly nonchalant climax, which is, in fact, the reason we have been invited to watch this melodrama in the first place.
Sean Penn's character is executed because he has killed, but no amount of foreknowledge can prepare one for the artful way Robbins combines those two fateful acts. In plain language, he devastates us with the terror of individuals facing extinction, alternating between Penn, the boyish victim of lethal injection, and the victims of Penn's vicious rampage.
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In the final analysis, Dead Man Walking is more a love story than a topical-issue melodrama. When director Robbins moves across both sides of the fence--victim to victimizer and back again--he isn't so much covering his tracks as laying the emotional groundwork for Prejean's profound ambivalence.
This is not a movie you'll argue over on the ride home. The film is more a purge of the ferocious emotional pull among all people involved in a murder case.
Dead Man Walking drops a massive, writhing knot of sorrow in your lap and then doesn't tell you what to do with it. If that doesn't sound like entertainment to you, you're right. It does something far more profound: It finds the tragic universal core of a contentious issue.
Dead Man Walking. Gramercy Pictures. Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Robert Prosky. Written by Tim Robbins, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean. Directed by Tim Robbins. Now showing.