When I walked out of a screening of Dead Man Walking last January, I didn't quite know what to think. Here was a movie written and directed by Tim Robbins, and starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn--three of the most unabashed liberals Hollywood has to offer--that did not allow easy classification. Was the message ultimately pro-death penalty or anti-? Was the quietly pious nun Helen Prejean a genuine crusader or a naive ingenue? Was the murderous Matthew Poncelet a sleazeball or a victim himself? Were the grieving families venomously unforgiving or heart-wrenchingly human? I was just as befuddled a week, even a month later; about as close as I came to a thoughtful analysis was that it was by far the most unapologetically moral film I'd ever seen.
Most moviegoers, whether they'll admit it or not, probably prefer that their films do most of the thinking--and draw the conclusions that come with it--so they won't have to. But ambiguity can be a powerful thing. That's why Dead Man Walking was one of the most provocative films of 1995. It couldn't be casually dismissed, because it showed its audience too much respect, and challenged them to talk the issue out--and, maybe, remain as ambivalent as Robbins and company were.
There's a natural tendency to seek out comparisons between Last Dance, a new death-row prison drama, and Dead Man Walking, and frankly, finding common ground doesn't require much effort. Last Dance is probably going to be disregarded by most as the ugly stepsister of the two films, the B-feature with the bombshell (Sharon Stone), not the A-list Oscar winner. But it's a serious mistake to attribute the dramatic weaknesses of the film to the vagaries of poor timing. Although Last Dance by no means approaches the thoughtful centeredness of Dead Man Walking, it isn't altogether irrelevant. There are pieces of a good film sloshing about amid its numerous extraneous subplots and infuriating superficiality. On the critical continuum wherein lies Just Cause at the unwatchable end and The Silence of the Lambs at the other, Last Dance struggles to find room at the halfway point; the surprise comes when the film manages to hold its ground once it gets there.
The most obvious difference between this and Robbins' film is the sexual role reversal. Here, the killer on death row is a woman, Cindy Liggett (Stone), a white-trash drug addict who brutally bludgeoned to death the son of a prominent local businessman and his girlfriend, and has been waiting defiantly for execution ever since. The time to review her file and decide whether to set the date for lethal injection has arrived again, so the new clemency board appointee, Rick Hayes (Rob Morrow), investigates Cindy's case. Rick has skirted the letter and spirit of the law himself on occasion, and after pissing his 20s away, he decides to make saving Cindy's life--misspent perhaps, but tragically undervalued as well--the operative metaphor for his own salvation.
There are basically only two methods for tackling this sort of redemption fable: The hero is either an uninitiated freshman, slowly hardened by his bitter experience (Devil in a Blue Dress is a recent example), or the bitter veteran refreshed to find a trace of humanity inside himself (see Marlon Brando in Don Juan DeMarco). Last Dance somehow seeks to combine these two, making Rick the callow, pampered fraternity brother who also gives a lot of knowing winks along the way.
The balance isn't struck very effectively. In order to make Rick's plight all the more difficult, virtually everyone in the movie--Rick's highly placed brother (Peter Gallagher), his boss (Randy Quaid), and his girlfriend (Jayne Brook), and every judge, district attorney, or public defender with even a passing familiarity with the case--seems to be exerting an inordinate amount of energy toward thwarting Rick's quest for justice. As with City Hall, there's simply too much saber-rattling going on here, as if everyone has something to hide. Ultimately, it's an amateurish means of getting the audience to rally behind Rick; it gives him something to do, even when he becomes unpalatably self-destructive. And when Rick creates a scene at a state dinner party, embarrassing the governor he should be sucking up to, you know the screenplay is bone-dry of fresh ways to move the plot along.
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The director, Bruce Beresford, seems temperamentally ill-suited for the quick fixes that Ron Koslow's scattershot screenplay too readily embraces. Most of the important moments, particularly at the beginning, are written in large capital letters, and Last Dance never fully recovers from its early superficiality. The film's obviousness robs it of a necessary uneasy ambiguity. There's virtually no mystery about how we're supposed to feel, so there's nothing to wrestle with--no introspection that goes beneath the detached evidence we're presented.
It's unfortunate that Beresford and Koslow didn't excise the movie's less meaty plot points and concentrate on developing the relationship between Rick and Cindy more carefully, but in retrospect it probably wouldn't have mattered much. Stone and Morrow seem comfortable in their parts--Stone's hillbilly accent and unglamorous appearance are more than adequate to confirm her progression toward serious actress--but there is a minimum of depth to their performances (at least till the last 15 minutes). Their acting seems endemic of the movie's more bloodless moments. Last Dance ultimately fails to involve you because, like Rick and Cindy, the emotions merely dance skittishly along the surface. The rawness is there to be seen; what the film requires--and what it is missing--is for the audience to feel it.
--Arnold Wayne Jones
Last Dance. Touchstone Pictures. Sharon Stone, Rob Morrow, Randy Quaid. Written by Ron Koslow. Directed by Bruce Beresford. Now showing.