Dead Man...Walking

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New life

Dead Man Walking is based on Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sister Helen Prejean and her role as spiritual advisor to a killer. The simple assignment to be a Pen Pal became the kind of work few of us believe Jesus is capable of doing. In this article, Sam Van Eman asks you to see the cross again.

Certain films have an ability to awaken us. I don’t mean keep us awake like scary movies do, but awaken us as in sensitize or redefine what we thought we understood. Seeing Les Miserables, for example, stretched my concept of forgiveness. Twelve Angry Men challenged me to consider how easily I make assumptions. The Truman Show, believe it or not, revealed my limitations as a dreamer. But Dead Man Walking bolted me awake like few other films ever have. And what a fitting time to tell you about it here on the doorstep of Easter.

When I first saw Dead Man Walking (1995), the disturbing scenes which implied Matthew Poncelet’s rape and stabbing of a teenage girl overwhelmed me. I was also amazed by the symbolic and dialogued portrayal of redemption. I might expect confession and surrender to God as an element of movies made by churches, but not as the climax in a Hollywood production.


The storyline is based on a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Sister Helen Prejean, and her spiritual advisement of a convicted killer in 1982. In the movie adaptation - directed by Tim Robbins and starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Pean - Prejean agrees to be a pen pal with Matthew Poncelet as he sits on death row. Matthew is there because he and his bar buddy, Carl – both drunk and high – stumbled upon two teenagers making out in a car in the woods of Louisiana, forced the boy and girl into handcuffs and proceeded to kill them viciously. The Assistant D.A. describes Matthew’s actions in detail:

“He was a heartless killer. These murders were calculated, disgusting, and cruel. This man shot Walter Delacroix two times in the back of his head, then raped Hope Percy and stabbed her seventeen times before shooting this sweet girl two times in the back of the head. Since the murder Matthew Poncelet has shown no remorse. In the courtroom when he was sentenced he was smiling and chewing his gum.”

“How can you sit with that scum?” asks Hope’s father, Clyde Percy, only days before Matthew’s lethal injection. Prejean, who had recently agreed to provide Matthew with spiritual guidance, replies humbly, “I try to follow the example of Jesus, that every person is worth more than his worst act.” Percy reacts:

“This is not a person. This is an animal. No, I take that back. Animals don’t rape and kill their own kind. Matt Poncelet is God’s mistake. And you hold the poor murderer’s hand? You’re going to comfort him when he dies? No one was there to comfort Hope when those two animals put her face down in the wet grass in those woods.”


The film takes place during Lent. This subtle yet significant screenplay decision forced me to connect the despicable Poncelet with the Easter story. I might have missed it otherwise if it weren't for the script notes which placed the announcement of Matthew's execution date during Holy Week, or the Easter dinner scene where Prejean's mother asks perplexedly, “Helen, why are you doing this?” Her question is a poignant one, because neither does the cross make sense. What good is Easter? Peter asked Jesus. Only afterward could he see the answer. Only after Prejean is asked why she would offer this grace-filled service to someone deserving death; only after Easter Sunday passes in the film, does healing occur. And it occurs. Matthew weeps at his confession, finally owning his repulsive, six-year-festering deeds.

“Oh, Matt,” Prejean consoles, “there are spaces of sorrow that only God can touch. You did a terrible thing, Matt, a terrible thing. But you have a dignity now and no one can take that from you. You are a son of God, Matthew Poncelet.”


I remember staring at the screen, entranced by the power of conversion in this moment and questioning whether I believed her theological declaration or simply heard it as something I had read in a book but only partially grasped. His sins were pardoned? This question returned to me in the final minutes of the film. A flashback shows Hope and Walter from overhead, lying dead in the woods with their arms out to their sides. The camera then shows Matthew from overhead, lying dead on the execution gurney with his arms out to his side. All I could see was the superimposition of innocence and guilt; lives worth saving and a life not worth saving. And that's when I awoke. Here was a dead man, and he was walking. For the first time I had to truly consider the reach of the cross in Isaiah’s words:

“Surely the arms of the Lord are not too short to save” (Isaiah 59:1).